Supreme Court justice: Judges, reporters share same goals
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Judges and journalists are like bickering siblings who don't see eye to eye but still need each other, Justice Stephen Breyer said on June 21.
The relationship is the same in Mexico, the chief justice of that country's Supreme Court said at a meeting sponsored by the Inter American Press Association that explored the tension between those who issue judgments and the people who report their decisions in America and elsewhere.
"They are in a sense twins fighting like mad but nonetheless necessary to each other," Breyer said.
Genaro David Gongora Pimentel, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Mexico, said both work for the public. Reporters' criticism of judges, though "uncomfortable," he said, "has to be accepted as public scrutiny."
American courts' credibility, Breyer said, comes only from aggressive reporting on court information, including sensitive reports about judges' personal finances.
People "know that the press is not an easy pushover, they are tough," Breyer said. "If that information is available and they write about it, they have some assurance of honesty."
The justice said because of credibility established over the years, there was no challenge to recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion, school prayer and the 2000 presidential election.
"Despite the division, despite the strong feeling, no one doubts that the country will follow the decision. That's remarkable," said Breyer, a Clinton appointee who opposed the outcome of Bush v. Gore.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling effectively settled the presidential election.
Judge Gilbert S. Merritt of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explained the decision to the group that included justices from Supreme Courts in about two dozen countries.
He said that although Democratic candidate Al Gore "had the majority of votes in the election, the country quickly sustained the Supreme Court. There was no coup d'etat. And business went on as usual."
The discussions came with a backdrop of American writers punished for not revealing sources and refusing to follow other court orders, and jailings in other countries of reporters whose stories angered leaders.
Mexico's chief justice said courts "cannot ask the media to become the checks and balances of the judiciary powers, then jail them."
In America, there is a recognition by courts of reporters' free-speech rights, said Breyer.
"We need the press because it is the press that sometimes in saying things we don't like at all will convince the public ... that in fact this is an honest institution," he said.
Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co., said journalists and judges were related.
"We're independent in a sense of everyone and in a sense of no one," Fuller said. "Both of us, judges and journalists, have no power except that which is ceded to us by the people."
A similar, ongoing discussion program with U.S. federal judges and American journalists, co-sponsored by the First Amendment Center, continues with an Oct. 4 conference in Denver.
Justice and Journalism
Justice and Journalism program description.