A Journalists Guide to the Federal Courts

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Use the oral reports from the book assignments to discuss the mystique of the Supreme Court, its importance, and also its fallibility.

Use a recent example of a court decision to discuss who might be affected by the decision, directly or indirectly, and who might make good sources for a local reaction story. One possible example from the First Amendment arena could be Snyder v. Phelps, the funeral protest decision, or United States v.

Stevens, the decision on animal cruelty videos.

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Spill and Zoe M. Assignment: For Week 10 or 11, assign the appellate court reaction story. As a result, much of the coverage lacks context and can even be misleading. For example, very few criminal or civil cases make it to trial, but trials get much more attention than plea bargains and settlements. Enterprise stories can help readers and viewers understand the often complex issues that are implicated or highlighted by the episodic stories they see.

Are there particular trends in sentences, or are particular crimes on the rise? Are there certain societal problems, such as juvenile delinquency or sexual violence, that keep replaying as court dramas without proper attention to underlying causes or solutions? Have students read the Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Barry Siegel of the Los Angeles Times on how several lawsuits over the deaths of civilian engineers on a military plane in the s led to the creation of the state secrets privilege. Also, use an example from a local news organization on some topic related to the legal system.

Use this class period to brainstorm ideas with students for enterprise stories. Preview the topics that you will be discussing in the next few weeks and encourage students to come up with their own ideas about how to localize stories on juvenile justice, the death penalty, and sexual violence. Also encourage them to come up with other ideas. Discuss how to research such stories, including interviews with experts on campus who could provide insights, and the possible obstacles to stories, such as the secrecy that often surrounds the juvenile court system and sexual violence.

Assignment: Assign the enterprise story due at the end of the term. Have students prepare a brief proposal for this project due on Class 2, Week 9. The story could be on any subject related to the judicial system. Students can be given a list of possible topics and encouraged to think of their own topics. Also, the second routine story is due today.

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Juvenile delinquency used to mean petty thefts, fights, runaways, and other petty offenses. The courts largely kept cases involving minors out of the public view on the theory that this would allow the juvenile offenders to rehabilitate themselves and become useful members of society without the stigma of a publicly available record of youthful misdeeds.

But as crimes by minors got more serious and more numerous, many states began to pass laws allowing minors to be treated as adults in the justice system. What have been the costs, in terms of both finances and the moral development of the offenders, to this crackdown on juvenile crime? What does the research show about whether the legislation allowing minors to be treated as adults has reduced crime and recidivism? Discuss with students how to localize stories from national or regional studies and discuss possible topics for stories about juvenile justice.

Have one or more local experts on juvenile justice speak to the class about local trends and issues associated with crimes by minors. Possible speakers could include a law school professor who specializes in studying juvenile justice; a judge who hears primarily juvenile cases; an advocate for minors in the justice system; a local prosecutor; or a police officer who mostly investigates crimes by gangs or other crimes by minors.

Discuss with the students how to use the speaker s or other people in the community as sources for an enterprise story on the topic of juvenile justice. Assignment: Have students look for recent examples of stories about juvenile justice issues and prepare brief critiques.

The death penalty has long been one of the more controversial features of the U. Its use raises serious questions about fairness and effectiveness as a deterrent to crime, as well as moral issues about whether the state should have the power to take a life to punish murderers and others.

Issues have arisen over the years about whether the mentally challenged should be put to death and whether the system sometimes focuses too much on process and not enough on justice, as when an appellate court refuses to hear an appeal based on new evidence because the deadline for filing an appeal has passed.

Others have raised the issue of whether the death penalty is unfairly administered more often to minority offenders than white offenders for the same types of crimes. The emergence of DNA evidence as a tool has led to sometimes startling reversals of sentences that have exposed flaws in the system, so much so that Illinois stopped all executions several years ago because of several high-profile exonerations.

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Discuss with students the possible angles to stories about the death penalty and possible sources for such stories. Also, have students scan the websites for the Innocence Project and the Medill Innocence Project , an organization affiliated with the Northwestern University journalism school that uses investigative reporting to look into possible cases of wrongful prosecution, www. Assignment: Remind students that their third routine stories are due at the next class meeting. Possible guest speakers could be a law professor who specializes in studying the death penalty; a judge who handles felony criminal cases; a prosecutor who has handled one or more capital criminal cases; a public defender who has handled one or more capital criminal cases; a crime victims advocate; and an opponent of the death penalty or person who works with death row inmates.

Have the class discuss how the speaker or speakers could be sources for an enterprise story about the death penalty and discuss possible topics for such a story. Sexual violence is both an important and frustrating topic to cover. Many states have laws that prohibit the release of identifying information about victims of sexual violence, and courts often close the doors to the public and press during victim testimony in criminal trials.

The problem has not gone away, however, and the irony of all of the secrecy associated with sexual violence is that it may hide the seriousness and extent of the problem and make it difficult to engage in reporting that would help protect the public. Meanwhile, some advocates for victims charge that a male-dominated justice system does not take the problem seriously enough and helps to obscure the prevalence of sexual violence.

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Also, it should be noted that the problem of sexual violence is not strictly a U. Discuss with the students methods for reporting on the prevalence and effects of sexual violence and how to combat it. Discuss the extent to which the topic could also generate international reporting, or local reporting with an international rather than strictly American framework.

Assignment: Have students look for examples of stories about sexual violence and bring one such story to the next class with a brief critique. Have one or more local experts on sexual violence speak to the class. Possible speakers could include a law professor specializing in the study of the problem; a local judge or prosecutor who deal with sexual violence cases; a campus police officer or police chief who can discuss its prevalence on campus; and a rape crisis center director from campus or the community. Discuss with students how the speaker s and other knowledgeable sources, as well as statistics that should be publicly available, could be useful sources for stories on sexual violence.

Also discuss possible, more specific topics for stories. Spending even one day in a courtroom during motion hearings or during a trial quickly dispels the notion that courts and the police function as they do on TV or in the movies. However, some judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys worry that jurors who regularly watch shows such as CSI , NCIS , or Law and Order have developed an unhealthy attitude about the workings of the justice system.

The fear is that jurors will either fault prosecutors for not introducing sophisticated forensic evidence or put too much faith in the infallibility of such evidence. The fears may not be well-grounded, given that studies have shown little or no evidence that juries are routinely acquitting or convicting based on their perceptions gleaned from TV, but the fear exists. Reading: Simon A. Assignment: Have students prepare a brief progress report on their enterprise stories for next class meeting. Attorneys, judges, and journalists in many states have formed bench, bar, press groups to provide a forum for discussing differences over court rules for the press and other issues related to coverage of the justice system.

Such groups often develop guidelines for how judges and attorneys should treat the press and how the press should police itself in covering the courts, particularly in regard to high-profile cases. If your state has such a group, get a copy of the guidelines and have students read them and discuss them. Assignment: No new assignments, to allow students time to complete enterprise stories.

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One new issue springing up in courtrooms is whether reporters should be able to send Twitter or Facebook updates on a trial in progress from the courtroom. Kansas Judicial Branch. On the home page select the 'News Media' tab in the center of the page. Information in this resource center includes press releases, judge information, live and archived Kansas Supreme Court oral argument recordings, docket information, court information, cameras in the court rules, court publications, court statistics, contact information, and other useful information for the press.

Press Room.

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Louisiana Supreme Court. On home page see 'Press Room' on left menu. The Press Room contains news releases, media policies, publications, and other media information. Maine Judicial Branch. This resource contains court news, press releases, and contact information. Maryland Judiciary Media Resource Center.

This Resource Center provides news releases including an RSS feed, rules and guidelines for cameras in the court, access to court records, the Jounalist's Guide to Maryland's Legal System , oral argument webcasts, court opinions, information on Maryland's judges, and other media information. Michigan Courts.

Fourth District Media and News Center. News and Publications Center. Missouri Judicial Branch. This site includes press releases, rules regarding cameras in the courtroom, media contact information including the media coordinator directory, speeches, the Chief Justice columns, and publications. Nebraska Judicial Branch Press Center. Resources here include press releases, downloadable pictures of the Supreme Court Justices, and overview of the Nebraska court system, "how to" guides for the media, rules on media coverage of courts, rules limiting the public comment of judges, and other useful information for the media.

New Hampshire Judicial Branch. This resource center includes press releases, a 'What's New?

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  8. Information here includes media contacts, press releases, online access to criminal case information for accredited media, and other useful information. Chief Justice's Media and Courts Forum. The North Carolina Court System. Information includes cameras in the courts policies, press contact information by county, basic rules for broadcast media, media handbook, and information about the Forum.