Courts and Trials in the Digital Age
By her own admission, retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is not much of an Internet user.
“I don’t even like to get e-mails,” she acknowledged during a keynote address at a digital media symposium in Phoenix on Feb. 18 that was co-sponsored by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements.
But the 80-year-old O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, was quick to point out that you didn’t have to be a user to understand the power of the Internet and social media. “We have witnessed in the last three weeks one of the most astounding events in world history with the change in Egypt,” she said. “It was simply incredible, and they did it through this media that you are talking about today.”
How to harness the power of new or digital media to raise public understanding of the courts was the focus of the daylong session. Titled “Public Understanding of the Courts in the Age of New Media,” the symposium was also co-sponsored by the host, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, and the Rehnquist Center, which is based at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Besides O’Connor, seven sitting federal judges joined journalists, court administrators and attorneys on panels tackling issues dealing with how the changing media landscape is affecting coverage of the courts, ABA efforts to provide more visibility for federal appellate courts and the challenges of high-profile trials in a digital age.
Tony Mauro, a veteran courts reporter and now a correspondent for the National Law Journal, praised the “Media Alerts” Web project run by the ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements. The “alerts” provide case summaries that are designed to help reporters, lawyers, educators and the public with prompt, accurate and unbiased information about newsworthy and legally significant cases either pending or decided by the federal courts of appeals.
Nine of the 13 federal circuits – the Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, D.C. and Federal – are covered in the project done in collaboration with professors and students at U.S. law schools. The project began in late 2009 and now has 520 subscribers, with plans to provide nationwide coverage by adding the four additional circuits.
Judge Margaret McKeown, a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and former chair of the Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements, said the project was created to foster more media coverage of the appeals court, which have been called the “anonymous courts.”
In remarks opening the symposium, ABA President-elect Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III said the session would serve as a critical stepping stone to help foster better understanding of the judicial system. Digital and social media, he said, present new opportunities to capture the interest of a younger generation of Americans.
Pete Williams, an NBC News justice correspondent, said courts need to be more responsive to the changing demands of both consumers and providers of news. “There are more people wanting to do more in a faster way,” Williams said of today’s media landscape.
U.S. District Court Judge John Jones of the Middle District of Pennsylvania said the challenge for judges and judicial administrators is to look at best practices across the country because there is a “totally new paradigm” emerging, and courts must adapt quickly to generate better public understanding of the institution.
“We need to take judges to school because the old way doesn’t work,” said Jones, who in 2005 barred a Pennsylvania public school district from teaching “intelligent design” in biology class, saying the concept is creationism in disguise. The case was called one of the biggest courtroom clashes between faith and evolution since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn.
In her remarks, O’Connor also put in a plug for more schooling, but it was for more civics education in our nation’s schools. “We gave up on civics and history and that is not a good place to be,” she said, echoing a priority of ABA President Stephen N. Zack who has made civics education in the schools one of his presidential initiatives.
O’Connor also serves in an advisory role to the ABA Commission on Civics Education in the Nation’s Schools. Her vision is credited to developing iCivics, a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.
“Nothing that I have done matters close to its importance and impact,” O’Connor, who served 25 years on the high court in addition to earlier service as a state legislator and judge in Arizona, said of her civics efforts. “Nothing.”
For more information on the Media Alerts on Federal Courts of Appeals, sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements, go to http://www2.americanbar.org/SCFJI/Pages/MediaAlertsOnFederalCircuitCourts.aspx