Remembering my day with John Seigenthaler

What is the motivation for my blog and my Jihad for judicial transparency? I can’t blame it on John Seigenthaler, but I will say that he started me thinking about how opaque the federal judiciary has become. Mr. Seigenthaler died Friday. For me personally, there was a degree of irony in his date of death. There was also sincere sadness on the passing of this iconic figure. He had touched my life in a significant way.

But, first, for those of you who have no clue about him, I urge you read Mr. Seigenthaler’s interactive obituary on the The Tennessean. It begins this way: “John Seigenthaler, a legendary Tennessee journalist, intimate confidant to two near-presidents and fierce advocate for racial equality, died Friday.”

When I was the Chief Judge of our District (1999-2004), I had the opportunity to spend a day with Mr. Seigenthaler in Chicago together with nine other judges and ten journalists.  This was the first of a series of regional “Justice and Journalism” conferences. The conference was held on the campus of Northwestern University and jointly sponsored by the First Amendment Center, the Judicial Branch of the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Northwestern Center of the Advanced Study of Free Expression. The report of the conference is here. It is worth reading.

Mr. Seigenthaler was a wonder. He exuded credibility in a way that I am unable to describe in words. He had obviously studied the judges and journalists. I remember that he had an anecdote about each of the judges regarding high-profile cases they had handled. He wondered aloud how the journalists could have covered those cases better and more accurately and how the judges might have helped with that endeavor. It was clear that he believed more openness from judges was necessary. He also took pains to educate the journalists on the special needs of the courts. He understood that the courts were different from other organs of government and he believed that journalists needed to have a realistic understanding of those differences. It was an eye-opening day for me.

At the end of the day, the judges and journalists drew up a list of things they might agree upon to open the courts to better reporting. The report of the conference referenced above lists some of those things. Among them, was the “streamlining of access to information, including a greater reliance on the Internet to make everything from court dockets and rulings to oral arguments available online.” I am proud to say that our little federal court in flyover country became a national leader in doing so. See, e.g., Richard G. Kopf, The Courts, the Internet, E-Filing and Democracy, 56 U.N.B.L.J. 40 (2007).

I flew back to Nebraska that night with my mind spinning.* Mr. Seigenthaler had started me on a journey. Although far too late, it behooves me say “thank you” to this great man. That’s the least I can do.


*As an aside, I shared a car to the airport with then Chief Judge Loken of the Eighth Circuit. I did not know the Chief very well. Frankly, given his no-nonsense reputation and his remarkable biography, I was afraid of him. The car ride dispelled my fear. What a neat guy.

10 responses

  1. So, just how many cocktails did you have before you left for the airport? I
    suspect the hundreds of hardworking, dedicated CJA lawyers who had their fees slashed by the former Chief might suggest a few other adjectives. Personally, I thought he did a good job as Chief and was good to the district court judges.

  2. Judge:
    While I did not know Mr. Seigenthaler, and while my politics and his are (to be polite) half a world away, he strikes me as do some men in public life whose integrity is so rock solid that it is nearly palpable. Once again I say, as I recently wrote in response to your blog entry about Mr. Justice Jackson: I fear that a man such as Mr. Seigenthaler is no longer possible in public life. And I fervently hope that I am wrong about this.

  3. Mark,

    Yes, there was that too! But, you know, I responded to his call for district judges to write better letters supporting excess vouchers. On that, the Chief had a point.

    By the way, since when did you become a troublemaker? What’s wrong with me! You were always so, and that’s what forged our friendship, I think.

    Take care. All the best.


  4. Robert,

    As a journalist, my sense is that is political views just somewho left him and he wrote what he saw and heard and knew. He was, as you so nicely point out, one of those men of a character so palpable that one wondered how it was forged. I hope you are wrong, and there are more like him ready to emerge on our modern scene. God(s) know, we need men (or women) like Mr. Seigenthale or Justice Jackson to show us the path.

    Thank you for writing Robert. All the best,


  5. Having lived in Nashville for 20 years I am well aware that John Seigenthaler was an icon of Journalism. Given our shared admiration of Mr. Seigenthaler, I am including a link to a You Tube video of a presentation he made in 2011 at Vanderbilt University entitled: “Wikipedia, WikiLeaks and Wiccans: Historical Accuracy Online”.

    Most of it is about his 2005 experience when inaccurate information about him was posted on Wikipedia. Below is the current entry about it on Wikipedia:

    “In May 2005, an anonymous user created a five-sentence Wikipedia article about Seigenthaler that contained false and defamatory content. Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia in September, and the content was deleted. He later wrote an op-ed on the experience for USA Today in which he wrote, “And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research – but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them”, a reference to the protection from liability that internet service providers are given under federal law, versus editorially controlled media like newspapers and television. After the incident, Wikipedia took steps to try to prevent a recurrence, including barring unregistered users from creating new pages and adopting explicit guidelines on the content of biographical articles.”

  6. Your comment regarding Chief Loken is a good example of why this blog is valuable. I have appeared before him and have discussed with countless lawyers his demeanor at oral argument. “Neat” is not an adjective that has ever been used to describe him, at least in my earshot. I know and have known a number of jurists all of whom have had their own way of interacting with lawyers. A fair number of them were as gentle and nice on the bench as they were off. A small handful have shown split personalities.

    Because I have never been a judge I can imagine how difficult it is to put on the robe the first time. I am sure I would never feel worthy. I know not all judges share my sense of not being worthy. Having said all of that, I never understood judges who showed a sharp edge from the bench and I really failed to see why a judge would be mean– even to inept or under-prepared lawyers.

    I’m sure you have a better sense of all that, but back to Loken. I wouldn’t expect to ever leave an interaction in any federal or state courtroom at any level with a sense of what a neat man or woman inhabited the robe, and with one or two exceptions never have. I have occasionally been awed, but rarely had that other reaction. But it says something about a judge, even in our adversarial system, when based on how they treat lawyers that they can inspire negative responses. It isn’t fair to judges that they must suffer a reputation and be able to do little about it, but I guess that goes with the robe. It is a worthy reminder that even judges whose reputation is generally not “neat” has that very impression on some people.

  7. High Plains Lawyer,

    My reference to his “nononsense” reputation was a way of alluding to his demeanor at oral argument. Judge Loken clerked for Mr. Justice White.

    Joan Biskupic wrote about White:

    On the bench, White was a fierce questioner and seemed to delight in backing a lawyer into a corner. When an evasive advocate had to concede a point, White would swing back in his chair, a look of victory spread across his face.

    We take a lot from our mentors. I wonder whether Judge Loken’s approach found its beginning from the formidable Justice White.

    In any event, on a personal level, in the back seat of the car to the airport, Judge Loken was a pleassure to be with. “Neat” came to my mind, and I’ll leave it at that.

    Finally, your point that the robe can obscure the person who wears it is a good one and one that I had not thought much about. In Judge Loken’s case, your point is spot on. Thank you for the insight.

    All the best.


  8. John Seigenthaler is a champion of the First Amendment and I am so pleased that Judge Kopf honored him. As many of the articles describe, John Seigenthaler also was a friend and mentor to many. He was a special friend to one of my closest friends, Marie Ragghianti. Marie spoke out about Gov. Ray Blanton of Tennessee, who was selling paroles. Her courage and determination were described in both a book and a movie called, “Marie.” I know that Marie has treasured her friendship with John Seigenthaler.

    I also want to note that John Seigenthaler seemed to have a twinkle in his eye and a friendly demeanor. Even if he was working on very important matters, he was approachable and encouraged those around him to do better. I am very glad that Judge Kopf was able to spend a valuable day with John Seigenthaler.

  9. John Seigenthaler was buried today, but his strength of character and insistence on righting wrongs are qualities that inspired countless others, and will endure. I was privileged to be a child of journalists, one of whom (my father Roque Fajardo) worked with and for John for many years when I was a child. Mother loved to entertain, and I have vivid memories of The Tennessean’s writers attending gatherings put together by her. I was fascinated and mesmerized by the energetic political and philosophical debates I heard through the years. Mother was also friendly with John’s mother Mary, and she taught his younger brother Tom in the third grade.

    John recommended my appointment to the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1975, a pivotal year in my life and Tennessee history. John himself told me that when the governor consulted with him about whether to appoint me, John said by all means but that he should be aware that I was “straight as an arrow.” I was of course highly complimented when I heard this, but I inferred (later) that John may have had a few misgivings about the governor even as he recommended me. Much later, I attended a dinner where Peter Maas spoke. John saw me in the back of the room, and said, “Marie, I have somebody I want you to meet.” Without further comment, he grasped my hand & led me to the front of a very long line where people were waiting to get Peter’s autograph. John interrupted Peter. He said, “Peter, I want you to meet Marie Ragghianti. She has a story to tell, and if you can get her to tell it, I think you’re going to be very interested.” I was speechless with surprise. That one comment from John sparked Peter’s interest, and it was thus that John Seigenthaler, for the last and final time, played a pivotal role in the direction that my life took. I will never forget him, for these and so many other reasons, many of which have been recounted in the past several days following his passing.

    The state of Tennessee and the newspaper world have suffered an incalculable loss.

  10. Marie,

    Thank you for writing and telling that remarkable story. You are, of course, a remarkable and brave person and I am flattered that you would take the time to share your thoughts on this little blog.

    For readers who do not know of Marie’s story, see here, here and here.

    All the best.


%d bloggers like this: