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.

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