By David Shapiro

Saturday, November 22, 1997

Judges should be leading fight for reform

I'VE covered government at all levels - from planning boards to Congress, from City Hall to the White House. None left me in such awe as covering hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's breathtaking to see the nine justices sweep into the historic courtroom. Nervous attorneys, often making the appearance of a lifetime, face sharp questions at a rapid pace before they get out even a few sentences of their carefully prepared arguments.

I love the judicial rituals - the black robes, the bailiff's cry of "all rise," the slavish devotion to rules of procedure. The trappings promote the respect judges need to do their jobs.

The word "respect" came up a lot at a meeting of state judges and journalists called by Chief Justice Ronald Moon of the Hawaii Supreme Court to foster understanding.

Many judges here don't think they get any respect. They see themselves as victims of a growing public cynicism. Some angrily blame the news media for feeding that cynicism.

Judges complained that our court stories are often inaccurate and unfair. They believe we sensationalize to sell news and don't understand complex legal issues.

Journalists shot back, complaining that judges lack regard for the public's right to know and respect for our service to the public.

The first impulse is to get defensive. But editors had better take heed when a reasonable young judge like Kevin Chang doesn't fully buy that the news media perform a public service.

And judges had better understand that the public cynicism they encounter stems more from a flawed judicial selection system and their own inability to explain their rulings than from our stories.

Judicial selection is increasingly perceived as politically corrupt. The entanglement of the judiciary with the Bishop Estate furor and the appointment of United Public Workers leader Gary Rodrigues to the Judicial Selection Commission damaged judges' credibility. They should be leading the fight for reform instead of wringing their hands worrying that a constitutional convention will vote to elect judges.

Judges need to write rulings that do a better job of explaining their reasons. Local judges often take the attitude that their rulings speak for themselves and that the law left them with no choice but to rule the way they did. If that were true, we wouldn't need judges. We could program a computer to make the only choice the law allows.

In charged cases like same-sex marriage and privatization of government services, local judges should take a hint from the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether we agree with high-

court rulings or not, justices almost always provide a factual and logical foundation that leaves a clear understanding of why they acted as they did.

Finally, judges need to understand that the news media must look at their rulings in a larger context than strict legalities. Our readers want to know the impact of court rulings on society and their lives.

ON our side, we must admit and correct mistakes when we make them. And we need to drop the notion that assuring a fair trial is entirely the court's problem, not ours.

Judges are sometimes too quick to restrict information as their first recourse for resolving fair-trial/free-press conflicts. It's part of our job to guard against that. But when the court makes a reasonable effort to solve the problem by other means, we need to recognize instances when the defendant's right to a fair trial outweighs the public's need to know a particular piece of information right now.

Bishop Estate Archive

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at
Volcanic Ash runs every Saturday in the Star-Bulletin.

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