Wick Communications

Disorder in the court

In journalism on 22 Oct 2010 at 8:28 am

If, in the course of your journalism, you have ever come face to face with a civil lawsuit, chances are two distinct things happened. First, you wondered how you were going to make a story out of this gobbledygook. Then your eyes glazed over and you started thinking seriously about another career.

Legal machinations are a minefield – patrolled by litigious attorneys — and I swear half the time the filings are written in Swahili.

“Lawyers are not journalists and a lot of times they will bury the lead,” explains Karl Olson. Olson is a noted First Amendment attorney and a former reporter. That puts him in a rare position of being able to see the law from both sides of the bar. He shared his insight in a recent journalism class at the University of California, Berkeley. (His talk was augmented by a wonderful tutorial put together by Cal journalism professor Paul Grabowicz.) …

The means of access to court records varies greatly from state to state, even county to county. Some are available online. Sometimes Web searches will turn up only case numbers and the paperwork itself requires a trip to the courthouse. But Olson said there are some things we can all look for.

  • The good stuff isn’t necessarily where you think it will be. Sometimes, particularly if the plaintiff’s attorney is media savvy and thinks publicity will serve his client, a civil suit will begin with a narrative outlining the allegations. But don’t count on it. As often as not, the complaint will be a bunch of boilerplate establishing standing in court and other prerequisites. Look on the docket for the writ of mandate or writ of mandamus. It should include the causes of action, which sometimes is actually written in plain English.
  • Look for declarations or depositions. These are interviews, typically done away from court, between attorneys and witnesses or principals to the case. These are often full of fun tidbits. Be aware that lawyers may choose to include only a portion of the larger deposition in the official record. You can ask attorneys for the rest of it, but they typically aren’t required to hand it over.
  • The proof of service is interesting for one reason. It may have an address for a reclusive source.
  • Remember you have an “absolute privilege” when it comes to accurately reporting from official court documents. That means you simply cannot be profitably sued for reporting stuff directly from the record. But be careful. Say the documents indicate Mr. X beats his wife. If you call the attorney and he goes beyond that with details of the beatings, that out-of-court expansion is potentially actionable. Stick to the records in the file and you are solid.
  • Ask for help. You already know this. Throw yourself on the mercy of court clerks. Ask for their help finding the information you want. Call the attorneys in the case (the plaintiff’s attorney is almost always listed at the top left of a civil action.) Attorneys are great sources. They are articulate by their very nature. They know that publicity is good for them, if not for their clients. And they generally don’t take this stuff personally. They aren’t likely to get mad and hang up on you.

Very few community newspapers dedicate a reporter to check the civil court docket every day any more. But I guarantee there are great stories in there. Just for fun, go to the local superior court and see what you can find.



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