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From the Newsroom: Fighting 1st Amendment fires

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: May 20, 2023, 6:02am

When the worlds of journalism and jurisprudence collide and sparks fly in Washington, either side can call the Fire Brigade.

That’s the name of an informal group of representatives of media and jurists. Its members try to promptly mediate and resolve problems when courts and reporters have immediate and conflicting needs.

The group is 60 years old, and luckily, it doesn’t have to put out a lot of fires, at least in Clark County. That’s because both sides have always tried to be sensitive to each others’ needs. For example, The Columbian would never try to contact jurors during a trial. That would jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

And I don’t ever recall a local judge trying to bar media from court proceedings or obstruct access to public records. I think this is pretty much the same situation statewide.

But we can’t assume the past will always hold true in the future. So last Friday, a group of journalists, judges and court officials gathered in conference rooms around the state to talk about our relationship and how to keep it strong, both for litigants and the public’s right to know.

The local session, held at Clark College, was attended by about 30 people, including two state Supreme Court justices, a local appellate judge, and Superior and District Court judges and court administrators from Clark and Cowlitz counties. Assistant Metro Editor Jessica Prokop, who leads our courts coverage, and I attended from the local media, along with two journalists from The Daily News in Longview.

(As an aside, I was struck by the fact that I had gone to college with one panelist, mentored another panelist when she was a summer intern, and had worked with a Fire Brigade member, one of the King County Superior Court judges, on the student newspaper at Washington State. When did we get old enough to run things?)

I was interested to learn more about what judges can and cannot say in a media interview, particularly because they campaign and are elected, yet they are bound by rules enforced by the state Judicial Conduct Commission. Reiko Callner, the commission’s executive director, said judges can have and state public opinions but must represent they always follow the law and will safeguard the integrity of judicial proceedings.

The way I understood it, for example, a judge can talk about the state’s DUI law, but can’t promise to be “tough on DUI,” because that could be interpreted to mean the judge has an opinion about upcoming cases. Likewise, a judge and a reporter can talk about, say, judicial ethics, but can’t talk about which attorneys are terrible at their jobs.

Clark County’s presiding District Court judge, Kristen Parcher, shared a success story with the group. When Judge Darvin Zimmerman got caught making remarks on a hot mic that he wasn’t aware was still broadcasting to the internet, he drew a lot of scrutiny and criticism. He later retired under pressure.

Parcher said the court’s other judges were outraged by Zimmerman’s remarks and didn’t want people to assume that they shared those opinions. So they got together and issued a public statement while the story was fresh in the news. The media picked it up, and the message was successfully communicated.

It seems like a mundane example, but it illustrates how both judges and the media have to approach their jobs with care and forethought in order to be successful at letting the public know what is happening in the court system.

Generally, both media and courts can work together, even when their goals are not aligned. But it was good to talk about each others’ needs and boundaries. And it’s especially good to know the Fire Brigade is on duty if things get too hot.

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