Monday, May 4, 2009

Twitter “ban” is little more than the same old concept toward new technology

I can remember being a rookie reporter-type person back in the late 1980s, covering (among other things) the courtroom of Cook County Judge Will Gierach at the south suburban courthouse in Markham.

Some judges get caught up in legalese, while others like to “play God” from the bench. Gierach was a judge who believed in a certain sense of decorum.

BY THAT, I mean he didn’t get caught up in theatrics. No yelling or screaming from Judge Gierach. He even treated the people in his courtroom with a certain level of respect that at times seemed comical, considering the world of criminal law and the bizarre cases (and people) that one encounters there.

He would address the skuzziest of criminal defendants as “sir” and “mister” in a level voice. I don’t ever remember him shouting. Everybody and everything in his courtroom had its specific place, and was expected to comply with that place.

And when it came time for juries to make public their verdicts in cases tried before Judge Gierach, he had his quirk – the bailiff would go and lock the door to the courtroom. Nobody got in or out of that space until the judge decreed it was proper.

I used to find that a pain in the tushy because I was working for a wire service at the time (the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago), and that meant I was reporting the news in real-time. Knowing the verdict, but having to sit through the legalese procedure by which the jury was congratulated for its work while also praised for its sacrifice of time, was annoying.

INVARIABLY, I’D HEAR from an editor, wondering why it took so ridiculously long for me to report in with the verdict, which could then be written up and transmitted within minutes (seconds, if people did their jobs properly).

I couldn’t help but remember Judge Gierach (who died in 1999) when I read an account about a judge in Colorado who is taking his own steps to maintain a sense of decorum in his courtroom.

Judge Daniel Kaup is presiding over a murder trial that is generating news coverage in the Denver area (not all murder trials are worth covering). When the judge found out that one weekly newspaper was using Twitter to send out those annoying 140-character blurbs that pretend to give people running coverage of an event, he took it upon himself to put a stop to this.

So for one day, the judge ordered that no one can offer up any kind of coverage of the trial until the end of the day. They have to wait for the court to adjourn for the day, before they can try to offer up any new information.

HE HAD TO back off his original order, issuing a new one the next day that said updates needed to be filed from outside the courtroom – which is to be expected.

Judge Kaup claims he is merely trying to prevent the jury from being tainted by hearing news coverage of the case they are presiding over.

Excuse me, however, for not buying it.

In the same way that jurors already are asked not to read any news coverage of the case they are involved with, they could be asked to ignore the Twitter blurbs (I refuse to call them Tweets, or Twits, or whatever other geeky name people use).

IN FACT, I would think that the courts are more than capable of making sure that people serving on juries are not spending their courtroom time checking out their cellphones or Blackberries or whatever other device they might normally use.

So I don’t see how the presence of these blurbs really has any effect on a criminal trial.

What this really strikes me as is being a case where a judge wants to assert his control over the way his courtroom is perceived, rather than just behaving in a professional manner and letting the public see that for themselves.

Judge Gierach didn’t want that mad dash for the door by people wanting to get out of the courtroom to find a pay phone to call in the verdict to a copy desk downtown. He would have found that rude.

BUT WITH TODAY’S technology, it literally is possible for someone sitting in the courtroom to send that little message out to an editor, informing them of the verdict so that someone can write-up the sentence or two letting the public know what has occurred.

I suppose in a certain sense, Judge Kaup finds it equally rude that anyone would send out little blurbs about his courtroom activity – letting people know exactly what was said just moments before.

If those blurbs were prepared by someone with a sarcastic streak, I could see how the outside world would get its laugh at the judge’s expense before he could do anything to control the perception.

But that is the reality of the latest technology. These little tidbits are going to be expected in real time, and there is a degree to which people in the courts and other professions are going to have to accept this as mere fact. Fighting it will be futile.

BACK IN HIS day, Judge Gierach could merely lock the door to try to assert a little control.

But there’s no locking the door anymore.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Somehow, the sight of typing out a “bulletin” on a Blackberry outside ( a courtroom doesn’t have the same “romance” as rushing for the payphone to call in a sentence or two.

Despite occasionally being locked in his courtroom, I remember Judge Gierach because of the sense of decorum he maintained that was rare. The Illinois Senate also found reason ( to praise him with this resolution.

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