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Bench Bar Press Committee
of Washington

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►Committee Description

►Fire Brigade ("Liaison Committee")

►Broadcast Journalist Contact
on Fire Brigade

►Broadcast Journalists
on Committee

►Bench Bar Press Committee Web Site

►Bench Bar Press Statement of Principles


Committee Description

The Bench-Bar-Press Committee of Washington (BBP) was formed in 1963 to foster better understanding and working relationships between judges, lawyers and journalists who cover legal issues and courtroom stories. The mission of the Committee is to seek to accommodate, as much as possible, the tensions between the constitutional values of "free press" and "fair trial" through educational events and relationship building.

The BBP Committee is chaired by the Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court and includes representatives from the legal profession, judiciary, law enforcement and the news media. The committee meets as a whole once or twice each year to review the state of relations between the various interested groups and to plan educational and other activities. Subcommittees of volunteers are organized on an ad hoc basis to plan and execute the educational and other events.

Since its creation in 1963, the BBP Committee has undertaken several important projects. It was the catalyst in opening up courtrooms to broadcast and still camera coverage in 1976.

The Committee conducted a lengthy study and camera coverage of an actual criminal trial that was produced as though it were a television news story. The Washington State Supreme Court was so impressed with the result that it unanimously adopted a rule allowing cameras in all Washington state courtrooms on a permanent basis. At the time, Washington was only the second state in the nation to allow cameras in the courtroom.

The Committee has developed a "Bench-Bar-Press Statement of Principles" which are not binding, but provide practical guidance on the relationships between judges, lawyers and the press, and are intended to promote a better working relationship between the bench, bar and news media.

A special subcommittee of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee, the Liaison Committee ("Fire Brigade"), has been created to help sort out conflicts of courtroom coverage. The Fire Brigade can speak with, or mediate on behalf of, any lawyer, judge or journalist facing a "free press/fair trial" issue. The Fire Brigade has a strong record of successfully suggesting ways that fair trial concerns can be resolved while preserving free press rights and public access to the judicial process.

The Committee also has presented educational seminars and open discussion sessions from time to time, focusing on court coverage issues, which give judges, lawyers and journalists the opportunity to share views and develop open communication with each other.

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Fire Brigade ("Liaison Committee")

Carrying Water to an Undying Blaze
by Robert M. Henderson, APR

The Liaison Committee shall exist to provide assistance in the resolution of disputes which may, in the course of a legal proceeding, arise from conflicts between a litigant's right to a fair trial and the news media's right to observe and report that proceeding. It shall be commonly known as the "Fire Brigade." [By-laws of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee of Washington]

It is said that media types were behind the bench-bar-press "movement of the early 1960's. Never a wholly popular institution in the United States, The Fourth Estate had, by post-WW II days, pretty much worn out its welcome in American halls of justice. Media behavior in major, high profile cases such as Sacco and Vanzetti, the Tennessee Scopes "Monkey" Trial, and the infamous Lindbergh baby murder, had led many to seriously question the right of news organizations to cover court proceedings.

Anti-media sentiment was building. New technology did not help. There was an electronic marvel called "radio" with its attendant wires, microphones and amplifiers. TV cameras began to come on the scene. Print photographers carried large, heavy still cameras with dishpan-sized flash reflectors that shot flashbulbs the size of pullet eggs. After the Lindbergh case, it would be 50 years before New York's total stricture on cameras in courts would be relaxed.

Then came the Sheppard case. A focal point of local, Cleveland society, Dr. Samuel Sheppard - "Dr. Sam" to the press - was young, good-looking and accused of murdering his wife. Convicted by an Ohio trial court, his case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court during the early 60's until, in 1966, the high court overturned the conviction, calling news coverage of the original proceeding a major threat to the doctor's right to a fair trial. "Legal rights," the court said in Shepppard v. Maxwell, "are not like elections, to be won through the use of the meeting hall, the radio and the newspaper."

In January of 1964, two years before the final word on Sheppard, a couple of carloads of Seattle-area judges, lawyers and news media people made a Saturday trip to Portland. Their purpose: To witness a meeting of Oregon's "bench-bar-press" committee.

Oregon was one of a number of states to organize groups of attorneys, judges, editors and reporters to work out First versus Sixth Amendment problems during the late 1950's and early 60's. Some feel much of the impetus for these committees came from media leaders who, in the wake of Sheppard and other "circus" cases, feared the legal establishment would shut news organizations out of the courtrooms, thus denying them a major source of grist for their editorial mills.

In Washington's case, there seems to have been no single event or case that led to the organization of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee of Washington. Early committee minutes credit the state "Judicial Conference" (probably the group that is known today as the Washington State Judicial Council) as urging then-Chief Justice Richard Ott (who probably chaired the committee) to develop a bench-bar-press group in 1964.

At the time, "Those...who have the privilege of representing the daily newspapers approach the work of this committee with enthusiasm," apparently had no negative briefs to file regarding relations with the bench and bar. At the start of a long career as Executive Director of the Allied Daily Newspaper Association, newsman/lawyer Paul Conrad noted in the same February '64 statement, "From the viewpoint of our Association and its member newspapers, our relations with Washington's courts and with the legal profession in general have been excellent. We take some pride, and hope our friends on the bench and within the bar do too, in the atmosphere of mutual respect that sustains this relationship."

Its first secretary-treasurer, Conrad's minutes of the organization's annual Fall meetings detail the progress of the completely unofficial, ad hoc, parlor discussion group: development of bylaws, including Rotarian-like criteria for membership (anybody can show up and be heard, but only a specified number from each of the organization's 19 member groups can vote) and, in 1966, promulgation of "guidelines" for press behavior during trials.

A decade-and-a-half later, those guidelines threatened the very existence of the committee after a trial court judge attempted to use them as a contract with news reporters who were covering a high-visibility trial in his court. In an appeal by a reporter's newspaper, the judge's position was affirmed 5-4 by the Washington Supreme Court. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

At an unprecedented two meetings in one year, Robert F. Brachtenbach, committee chair and then-Chief Justice, hoped the case wouldn't "rent the fabric" of the organization. It was reported that similar committees in other states had disbanded in protest of the Washington situation. But judicial calm prevailed. Under Brachtenbach's leadership, the committee rewrote its guidelines, tabbing them "principles and considerations." Now with decades of history behind it, Washington's bench-bar-press committee -- probably the nation's oldest -- lives on.

Sometime in the 1970's, Conrad's carefully typed minutes began to mention something called a "fire brigade."

Annual, state-level ventings of frustrations about fair trial/free press problems apparently were not getting the job done at the local level. Committee members decided local fair trial/free press disputes should be resolved as each arose, before they had a chance to burgeon, delay proceedings, and become a "trial within a trial."

After some discussion, but without formal vote, the committee of the whole appears to have blessed the creation of a volunteer "Liaison Committee." Its job: to assist in the resolution (but only if asked) of conflicts between a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and the press' First Amendment right to unfettered reporting.

Composed more or less equally of representatives of bench, bar and press, the half-dozen member committee began to take requests for help. If a reporter got shut out of a pretrial hearing, the group got a call. A judge who was worried that media reportage would poison his jury pool might also call for advice. Because it usually responded to last-minute, emergency pleas for help, the group was quickly nicknamed, "The Fire Brigade."

For many years, that term was synonymous with the name of the late Frank Roberts, a long-time judge of the King County Superior Court. In annual, verbal reports delivered to the parent committee, the judge would describe the half-dozen or more incidents handled during the year.

A few years ago, the Fire Brigade was given a more official status, and a stated purpose, when it was included in the by-laws of the parent committee.

Liaison Committee assistance may be provided to any lawyer, judge or media professional requesting it. Assistance shall be limited to those involved in disputes resulting from conflicts between rights of fair trial and free press. Assistance may consist of consultation, mediation and/or the provision of information to requesting parties. [ART. IV, Sec. 3, of the Bylaws of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee of Washington]

For several years, the Liaison Committee was chaired by the Honorable Gerry Alexander, then a Judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division Two. Using a somewhat different style than his predecessor, Judge Alexander polled his small delegation by phone or held committee brainstorm sessions via conference calls when asked to consult on a problem.

The latter method was employed when the judge in the trial of accused child molester and murderer Westley Allan Dodd, saw a potential free press/fair trial problem. The judge had learned that Dodd had volunteered to meet in his cell with a reporter and give her his own special, artistic creation: a "coloring book" designed to warn kids away from child molesters, like himself. Worried that this apparent public admission of guilt would taint the jury pool, the trial judge contacted Judge Alexander for advice.

By conference call, Alexander called a meeting of most of his eight brigadiers, tracking down at least one participant at an out-of-state location. Together, group members came up with options that could be presented to the newspaper editor, options that would give the defendant the fair trial he was due, while maintaining the paper's right to publish the material it had received from Dodd.

None of the Fire Brigade's options were accepted by the editor and the story ran, with illustrations from Dodd's coloring book, as scheduled. But in an interesting acquiescence to accountability, the editor took space in his own column to tell readers his reasons for running the piece, the options offered to him by the Fire Brigade, and his reasons for not accepting them. Later, Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, also printed a commentary on the situation.

In the years since its first informal start, the Fire Brigade has never been asked to handle a great number of problems, a half-dozen a year at most. But there will probably always be a need for its help. The constitutionally built-in friction between the rights of a free press and a litigant's right to a fair trial will, at least occasionally, kindle a blaze that requires the volunteer services of the "Fire Brigade."

[Bob Henderson retired in 2000 as the public information officer for the state Office of the Administrator for the Courts. An accredited public relations professional, he served as the secretary-treasurer of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee of Washington for many years.]

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Broadcast Journalist Contact on Fire Brigade

Liason Committee ("Fire Brigade")

If you have a problem with courtroom access that you cannot resolve with the judge or the judge's staff, contact the chair of the Fire Brigade, Judge William Downing of the King County Superior Court at (206) 296-9362 who will conduct the Fire Brigade's informal mediation of the situation.  The Fire Brigade handles inquiries from all areas of Washington state.

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Broadcast Journalists on Committee
Broadcast Members
WSAB (Member of BBP Steering Committee)
Mark Allen, President & CEO
Washington State Association of Broadcasters
724 Columbia Street N. W., Suite 310
Olympia, WA 98501
Phone: (360) 705-0774
Fax: (360) 705-0873
Television
Monique Ming Laven
KIRO-TV
2807 Third Avenue
Seattle, WA 98121
Phone: (206) 728-7777
Fax: (206) 441-4840
Radio
Paula Wissel
KPLU-FM
2601 4th Avenue, Suite 150
Seattle, WA 98121
Phone:  (206) 922-1020
Fax:  (206) 748-9255
 

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Bench Bar Press Statement of Principles

The Bench-Bar-Press Committee of Washington
Statement of Principles & Considerations

PREAMBLE

The Bench, Bar and Press (comprising all media of mass communication) of Washington:

(a) Recognize that the reporting by the news media of governmental action, including the administration of justice, is vital to our form of government and protected by the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Washington.

(b) Seek to preserve the constitutionally protected presumption of innocence for those accused of a crime until there has been a finding of guilt in the appropriate court of justice.

(c) Believe both constitutional rights can be accommodated without conflict by careful judicial craftsmanship and careful exercise of discretion by the bench, the bar and the news media.

PRINCIPLES

To promote a better working relationship between the bench, bar and news media of Washington, particularly in their efforts to protect both the constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and of the right to a fair and impartial trial, the following statement of principles is suggested for voluntary consideration to all members of these professions in Washington.  Any attempt to impose these Principles and Considerations as mandatory is contrary to the intent of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee and contrary to the stated goals of these Principles and Considerations.

1) Accurate and responsible reporting of the news media about crime, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system enhances the administration of justice.  Members of the bench and bar should make available information concerning that process to the fullest extent possible under their codes of conduct and professional responsibility.

2) Parties to litigation have the right to have their causes tried by an impartial tribunal.  Defendants in criminal cases are guaranteed this right by the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Washington.

3) Lawyers and journalists should fulfill their functions in such a manner that cases are tried on the merits, free from undue influence by the pressures of news media reports.  To that end, the timing and nature of media news reports should be carefully considered.  It is recognized that the existence of news coverage cannot be equated with prejudice to a fair trial.

4) The news media recognize the responsibility of the judge to preserve courtroom decorum and to seek to ensure both the open administration of justice and a fair trial through careful management.

5) A free press requires that journalists decide the content of news.  Journalists in the exercise of their discretion should remember that readers, listeners and viewers are potential jurors.

6) The public is entitled to know how justice is being administered.  However, lawyers should be aware that the timing and nature of publicity they create may affect the right to a fair trial.  The public prosecutor should avoid taking unfair advantage of his position as an important source of news, even though he should release information about the administration of justice at the earliest appropriate times.

7) Proper judicial, journalistic and legal training should include instruction in the meaning of constitutional rights to a fair trial, open justice and freedom of the press, and the role of judge, journalist and lawyer in guarding these rights.  The bench, the bar and the press will endeavor to provide for continuing education to members of each respective profession concerning these rights.

8) Open and timely communications can help avoid confrontations.  Toward that end all parties are urged to employ the Bench-Bar-Press Committee’s Liaison Subcommittee when conflicts or potential conflicts arise.

CONSIDERATIONS IN THE REPORTING OF CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS

The Bench-Bar-Press Committee offers the following recommendations for voluntary consideration of all parties.  They may be of assistance in educating law enforcement, the press, bar and bench concerning the exercise of rights, duties and obligations outlined in the Statement of Principles.

The bench, bar, press and law enforcement officials share in the responsibility for the administration of an open and fair system of justice.  Each has a special role which the others should respect and none should try to regulate the judgment of the others.

Public interest in the administration of justice may be particularly great at times prior to trial.  Pretrial proceedings often are as important to the open administration of justice as the actual trial.  The bench should help ensure both openness and fairness through commonly accepted judicial procedures consistent with these Principles.  The bar should carefully consider the timing and nature of the publicity it creates.  The media should contribute to openness and fairness by careful evaluation of information that may be kept from the jury at trial and by exercise of restraint in reporting that information.

All parties should be aware that the jury system has the capacity to provide unprejudiced panels even in cases of great public interest and substantial media coverage.

1) It is appropriate to make public the following information concerning the defendant:

a) The defendant’s name, age, residence, employment, marital status, and similar background information.  There should be no restraint on biological facts other than accuracy, good taste, and judgment.

b) The substance or text of the charge, such as complaint, indictment, information and where appropriate, the identity of the complaining party.

c) The identity of the investigating and arresting agency and the length of the investigation.

d) The circumstances immediately surrounding an arrest, including the time and place of arrest, resistance, pursuit, possession and use of weapons, and a description of items seized at the time of arrest.

2) The release of certain types of information by law enforcement personnel, the bench and the bar and the publication thereof by news media generally tends to create dangers of prejudice without serving a significant law enforcement or public interest function.  Therefore, all concerned should be aware of the dangers of prejudice in making pretrial disclosures of the following:

a) Opinions about a defendant’s character, his guilt or innocence.

b)  Admissions, confessions or the contents of a statement or alibis attributable to a defendant.

c) References to the results of investigative procedures, such as fingerprints, polygraph examinations, ballistic tests or laboratory tests..

d)  Statements concerning the credibility or anticipated testimony of prospective witnesses.

e) Opinions concerning evidence or arguments in the case, whether or not it is anticipated that such evidence or argument will be used at trial.

Exceptions may be in order if information to the public is essential to the apprehension of a suspect or where other public interests will be served.

3)     Prior criminal convictions are matters of public record and are available to the news media through police agencies or court clerks; law enforcement agencies should, if requested make such information available to the news media.  The public disclosure of this information by the news media may be highly prejudicial without any significant addition to the public’s need to be informed.  The publication of such information should be carefully considered.

4)     Law enforcement and court personnel should not prevent the photographing of defendants when they are in public places outside the courtroom.  They should not encourage pictures or televising, nor should they pose the defendant.  The media should recognize that broadcasting, televising, recording and taking photographs in the courtroom is governed by GR 16.

Artist’s renditions sketched in the courtroom are not covered by GR 16 and should not be curtailed unless such actions distract participants or impair the dignity of the proceedings.

5)   Photographs of a suspect may be released by law enforcement personnel provided a valid law enforcement function is served thereby.  It is proper to disclose such information as may be necessary to enlist public assistance in apprehending fugitives from justice.

6)   The media are free to report what occurs in the course of judicial proceedings.  All participants in the administration of justice should work to keep the entire course of judicial proceedings, including pretrial hearings, open to public scrutiny.  The bench should consider using all means available to ensure protection of a defendant’s constitutional rights without interference with the public’s scrutiny of the criminal justice system.  The closure of a judicial proceeding should be used only as a last resort.

7)   The bar and law enforcement officials should expect that their statements about a case will be reported in the media.  Such statements should be made in a time and manner contributing to public understanding of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, rather than influencing the outcome of a criminal trial.

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