Tales From the Courts

     When I started at the Los Angeles Daily Journal as a rookie reporter three decades ago, there was a very casually dressed reporter — worn polo, wrinkled slacks, beat up sports shoes — walking around with a black beard and a black baseball cap.
      The cap was emblazoned with white script saying, “Drama in Bahama,” in reference to the great Muhammad Ali’s most recent fight, and it turns out his last one.
      The reporter was Milt Policzer who is a fight fan and racetrack afficionado, has a law degree, and who was at the time writing a daily column that was good, a feat that I realized much later is truly astounding. Most columnists write once a week, at most twice.
     We worked in the same newsroom for a couple years and then went in separate directions, Milt writing a column for the competing Recorder in San Francisco while I began freelancing for the Boston Globe and the New York Times.
     When I started the Central District Almanac more than a decade ago, I asked Milt to write a column for us which he has done steadily since then. But he also kept reporting on the new civil cases filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and over the many years has developed a vast knowledge of the court’s quirks and many irrationalities.
     For example, our new reporter in Santa Monica was trying to get a hold of a case that had been filed in Santa Monica a week earlier but was then assigned to Beverly Hills. It involved Kramer from the “Jerry Seinfeld Show” who is accused of beating up a photographer.
     Milt sent me a note, saying that if we were told by court officials that the case was not in Santa Monica, we should ask that the shelf be checked.
     Our reporter Melissa Tong phoned me later in the afternoon from the Santa Monica courthouse. She said, in an excited tone, that Milt had been right. She had waited in line and asked for the case, but the clerk looked it up on her screen and said it was in Beverly Hills.
     Melissa, who has an English degree from Berkeley and a law degree from Duke, waited around and flagged down another clerk who has been helpful in the past.
     He checked and sure enough, it was on the shelf and she was able to see it.
     Even with extra effort, the case was by then a week old. We have been trying to regain the timely and complete access in that court that journalists had in the past, so far without success.
      In our efforts across the state to push back against the steady degradation of press access in California’s courts, our reporters have resorted to a number of alternate strategies, in addition to hailing sympathetic court employees.
     For example, there is a form in some California courts that allows a person to register with the court as a “researcher,” which designation allows that person to go behind the counter and back into the stacks.
      In other California courts, there is a form that allows a person to register as a photocopier. A certified copier can take the cases out of jackets, for example, and make his or her own full-text copies.
     A rival publisher is using that method to gain access and we must answer.
     And then of course lawyers have a special line at the courthouse, that, as Milt pointed out in his Monday column, sometimes becomes the same line that is used by reporters and everybody else. At which point lawyers go to the front.
     While those groups are provided accomodations tied to their work at the courthouse, journalists have been steadily pushed back by California’s courts.
     For example, in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, reporters would in the past stay until five o’clock, a half-hour after the public was sent out, to review late filed matters.
      Recently, San Francisco Superior Court withdrew that privilege, an initiative strongly defended the court’s public information officer, putting an irrational pressure on reporters and the court’s staff to get all the cases reviewed by 4:30.
     In L.A., the public information office and the court wanted to close the pressroom at 5:30 making a complete review of the new cases impossible, a wrongheaded initiative that was pushed back.
     The state courts accommodate those who have daily business in the courts — researchers, copiers and lawyers. But reporters? Ah no, that is where they draw the line.
     We are routinely met with arguments by court officials, saying news reporters are simply “members of the public,” and I always find it funny in a dark way that that means they believe they can put reporters trying to cover the court through the same hassles they impose on the average joe who comes to the court once in a blue moon.

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