Press Room

     In Federal Court in Los Angeles, one of the lawyers for Courthouse News compared the courtroom, with high ceilings, dark wood panels, heavy traditional furniture, to a museum.
     I answered that I always thought of the courtroom as a theater, where the actors in formal dress went to their marks and delivered their lines while a stern figure in robes looked on, a chorus decided and the quiet jokers of the press took notes.
     Having spent years in the press room in that courthouse, it was bracing to be out of the editor’s office and back in a courtroom taking notes at a live hearing earlier this week, even more so where Courthouse News was a party.
     We had filed a complaint three years ago against the court clerk in Ventura over delays in access to the new actions that ran from a few days to weeks and on some big cases months. The complaint said that there was a longstanding tradition of press access to new filings at the end of the day.
     That tradition was inculcated into me in the very courthouse where we filed our complaint.
     Winding back in time to when I started out as a freelance journalist for the Herald Examiner in Los Angeles, I cast my eye around the old press room on the third floor – across from one of the jury rooms – with the L.A. Times in the back, the Daily Journal, United Press International (long since deceased), Copley News, City News Service by the door, the Orange County Register, my desk where I wrote the Central District Almanac and behind me the Daily News.
     The press room was a bustling place at the time and the Central District for some reason hosted a lot more national cases that it does now. I wound up writing regularly for the Boston Globe and the New York Times, mixing regional stories with breaking news coverage from the courthouse.
     One of the daily routines in the press room, besides a bunch of us going across the street to the decaying federal mall for lunch, was the late afternoon ritual of trooping two floors down to the clerk’s office, via the fire stairs, to look over the stack of new civil complaints filed that day. The complaints were set on a long table, and journalists stood around it, looking through the new actions.
     That ritual wound up as part of the Central District Almanac where every two weeks I reported on district court trials and rulings, and, in the back, reported on the new actions.
     That back part was the result of a conversation with a former chief assistant in the U.S. attorney’s office who, after going into private practice at Skadden, told me the L.A. Times had stopped reporting the new civil actions on its business page.
     A light bulb went off and soon enough, in addition to reporting the new cases every two weeks, I had a bought a fax machine that could send out the information every afternoon. Its 19-number memory was very quickly filled by major firms in Los Angeles, interested in that news.
     As our news service expanded to include courts in San Francisco then New York and then throughout the country, I found that in one court after another, the new civil filings were made available to the press at the end of the day. In federal courts in the Midwest, for example, a wooden box was set on the counter often with a label saying it was for the press, where new filings were put as the day went along.
     In the years since then, the tradition has come under attack by local bureaucrats, particularly in state courts. I have puzzled with our lawyers over what drives an administrator to cut off press access to the pleas of litigants in a great institution of open American democracy.
     The only theory that seems to match the animus behind a litany of justifications – security, short staff, the press should not be special – is that administrators feel like the documents are theirs to control, in a sense belong to them. Occasionally, you hear a clerk note that the clerk is a public servant, the courts are public institutions of American government, and their record is the public record.
     But not that often. And so we appeal to judges.
     In the matter of our action against Ventura, we were knocked out of court on a motion to dismiss. But that happened once already and Ninth Circuit judges reinstated the action, and it seems likely that three years on they will be looking at it again.

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