Judges in session: District Court judges address journalism students in an attempt to improve trial coverage. From left to right: James Kelley, Douglas MacDonald, Patrick Madden.
Three Iowa judges met with a classroom of students from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication this spring, in an ongoing attempt to educate future journalists about the legal system.
The program, a joint effort between the Iowa Judges Association and the J-MC School, was held during professor Lyombe Eko’s Legal and Ethical Issues in Mass Communication class, a required course for journalism majors.
Eko introduced the judges by calling for more cooperation.
“Journalists and judges are on the same team, we just play different roles,” Eko said. “We are the offense and they are the defense.”
The judges panel included District Judges James Kelley and Patrick Madden and District Associate Judge Douglas McDonald. All serve in District 7, an area that includes Maquoketa, Clinton, Muscatine and the Iowa half of the Quad Cities.
The judges discussed issues important to journalists such as hidden cameras, open records and television broadcasts of court cases. Throughout the session, all three judges encouraged reporters to meet with them, especially before important cases are heard.
“We’re not ogres,” Madden said. “We’re not bad people.”
For example, McDonald related how he once came to the defense of a reporter who his clerk was trying to chase out of the courtroom.
“He didn’t look like one of our customers,” he quipped. “We ended up becoming pretty good friends.”
Although the judges are willing to talk to reporters, they cautioned that judges are legally limited in what they can say.
“Judges cannot comment on any pending case,” McDonald explained.
Kelley used the O.J. Simpson case to show how judges must limit their conversation, despite how eager reporters are for information.
“I couldn’t comment on the O.J. case while it was in trial,” he said. “If you want to ask me about the case now, we can talk.”
In addition to legal restrictions, the judges explained why some of their colleagues are reluctant to divulge information.
“We have a lot of reporters who like to put a slant on things to make a judge look foolish,” McDonald said. “Law practices are hard to go back to once you leave them, so we don’t want to lose our job.”
The judges discussed how news reports can sometimes bias potential jurors, even when the reports are accurate. This happens when attorneys talk to reporters to publicize their side of the case.
“That was the trouble with the O.J. case,” Kelley said. “There was no one judge assigned to the case at the time of intake, to control the various attorneys.”
While they see this situation happen often nationally, they personally have had very few problems.
“Both the prosecution and the defense are much better in Iowa than in other states,” Madden said.
Although the judges criticized some communication outside the courtroom, they emphasized that almost all courtroom proceedings are open to the public. Kelley could only remember about a half dozen delinquency hearings in the last 20 years that ended up being closed, and even those were closed only after a decision in an open hearing.
“The media may want to be there to argue for an open hearing,” Kelley said.
Most of the judges’ presentation related to issues of specific interest to reporters, but parts were about interesting situations they have dealt with. Madden once had to instruct a crying baby’s parents to quiet the child but was startled when the father yanked the baby out of the courtroom by the arm.
“I said, ‘Bailiff, arrest that man and put him in jail’,” he said. “I witnessed child abuse right in my courtroom.”
While the judges admitted that they are careful when communicating with the media, they encouraged the practice of allowing cameras in the courtroom. McDonald was somewhat of a groundbreaker in this area, as he was a defense attorney for the first Iowa case, a prominent murder case, to allow television cameras to film the trial.