Albion Monitor /Commentary

Is it News if Supreme Court Justices Freeload?

by Duane Bradford

The best and most significant examination of the ethics of federal judges in more than a decade

TALLAHASSEE -- Well, yes and no. If you live in Minneapolis, you might have said "yes" when you picked up the Star Tribune on two successive mornings last March to read thousands of words about how the hometown West Publishing Company had been treating our U.S. Supreme Court justices to first class trips to far-flung resorts under the guise of official business.

Tony Mauro of the Legal Times was quick to see the significance of the series. Mauro wrote on May 22 that the series "was arguably the best and most significant examination of the ethics of federal judges in more than a decade, detailing trips, parties, and awards for judges and justices that had been subsidized by a politically active legal publishing company with significant cases before these same jurists."

That's the same publishing company, understand, that prints opinions that the judges write. West sponsored a program, the Devitt Award, in which federal jurists are selected annually to receive a $15,000 prize put up by the book company.

Winners were picked by a selection committee which since 1983 has included a total of seven Supreme Court justices, two of whom are now retired. That selection committee, picked by West, traveled first class at West's expense -- sometimes with their spouses -- to resorts in and out of the country where they met and picked the winners. What's wrong with this picture?

If you lived in New York, you might not have even heard about it

If you lived in Baltimore, you might have read a Baltimore Sun account of the exhaustive Star Tribune series that showed a gift-giving relationship between federal judges and seven Supreme Court justices over the past 12 years.

Elsewhere across the land, however, you may not have been given a chance to read this rare and telling revelation about the personal conduct of the Justices, the final arbiters of the many meanings of the U.S. Constitution.

If you lived in Los Angeles and managed to reach Page 11 of the Times, you may have seen a 391-word wire service report of the Star Tribune story which, judging from its size, did not attract much attention from sleepy Sunday editors on the national desk.

Washington Post readers would have noticed the same kind of story if they looked hard, and the Wall Street Journal also noted the event in passing. U.S. News & World Report carried a story. Reflecting monthly deadlines and lengthy lead times, the conservative American Spectator magazine reported on "Judges for Sale" two months later. In May, the American Bar Association Journal carried two pages.

Two and one-half months after the series emerged, computer searches yielded only a handful of editorials in newspapers besides the Star Tribune -- including one each in Florida, Texas and Arizona. If you lived in Atlanta, you probably caught a 130-word followup news roundup in the Atlanta Constitution in which West Publishing complained about the Minneapolis Star Tribune stories -- but there was little about what the stories said.

If you lived in New York, though, and get your news only from The Times, you may not know what this story is all about, even today. What was news in Minneapolis was not necessarily news in New York -- the New York Times published nothing about the Star Tribune series. That was no accident.

The Times editors say they examined the story, weighed the judgment of their Supreme Court correspondent, Linda Greenhouse, and concluded as she had that it was not fit to print. So nothing was reported -- not even the wire account. And television? NBC devoted 20-seconds toward the end of a newscast.

How can respected newspapers examine such a serious matter and come up with utterly different decisions?

In this instance, the Star Tribune stories may have received as much coverage on the internet as anywhere in the print medium. Not long after their publication and in response to requests, the entire series was posted on the World Wide Web by Newshare Corp., and Ralph Nader's Taxpayers Assets Project (TAP) posted a story.

TAP originally published information about West's judicial awards program, the nucleus of the Star Tribune series, two years ago. According to TAP's James Love, the disclosures were ignored by the media then, too.

So what's going on? Are we experiencing a journalistic judgment disorder afflicting our major media? How can it be that respected newspapers can examine such a serious matter and come up with such utterly different news decisions? How can it be that not even a handful of the nation's major newspapers had no editorial commentary about these serious allegations of ethical misconduct by seven Supreme Court justices past and present? Is it merely a case of a major journalistic goof, or misplaced reliance upon someone's news judgment?

Some attribute the flaw to journalistic snobbery, to a dog-in-the-manger attitude about another newspaper getting a good story first. Ed Cray, a former journalist, author and now a journalism teacher at University of Southern California, is more than casually acquainted with the court and its operations. Told that the Times' failure to publish the story was not a mishap -- that the Times did actually consider the story -- Cray took less than a second to react: "Oh, how very generous of the Times!"

Others, like former University of Missouri School of Journalism Dean James Atwater, find it difficult to explain why good stories are often ignored.

"They just aren't interested enough about what's happening elsewhere (enough) to really ride herd on the good stuff that is being done," Atwater said. "That's a pity," he added, "because the major papers in this country should followup on stories developed by papers like the Star. They could at least do some editorials and op-ed pieces about the topic."

The handling of this issue suggests a major flaw in the American media

Star Tribune Washington correspondents Tom Hamburger and Sharon Schmickle were not ones to pump their story. They said they were simply interested in it because it told how judges with lifetime jobs were themselves behaving as they decided issues about our conduct of our everyday lives. Hamburger and Schmickle thought the media was neglecting this aspect of court coverage.

Whatever the reason, the stark contrast in the handling of this issue by our national media suggests a major flaw in the American media system, where 23 media companies are said to own fully half of the audience.

Perhaps the new eye of the emerging electronic media, and the competition they create, will eventually stimulate the judgment of our colleagues in print.

Duane Bradford was Tallahassee bureau chief for N.Y. Times newspapers.

Albion Monitor September 18, 1995 (

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