“I just follow my own common sense,” a justice of 13 years told reporter William Glaberson of The New York Times, “and to hell with the law.” This justice is emblematic of many in New York’s approximately 1,250 town and village courts that Glaberson investigated in 2006. His sleuthing turned up a number of appalling stories. For example, a woman in Malone, NY tried to secure “an order of protection against her husband,” and although police confirmed that her husband had “choked her, kicked her in the stomach and threatened to kill her,” the judge denied the request. To explain his decision, the judge, who had only a high school diploma, told the court clerk that “every woman needs a good pounding every now and then.” Glaberson reported the story seeking to expose the inner workings and problems of small-claims courts like the one in Malone. The implications of these courts, however, are far from small; they retain the power to give jail time, even while operating with little state oversight. This remains true despite the fact that, as the New York Times piece revealed, “nearly three-quarters of the judges are not lawyers, and many…have scant grasp of the most basic legal principles.”Over time, little has changed. In April 2013, Glaberson published another article — the culmination of two years of investigative reporting on the Bronx justice system. His simple finding: “Bronx courts are failing.” Judges arrived at court late. Defendants were brought even later. Some cases stayed in limbo for years before reaching trial. Meanwhile, Bronx prosecutors’ conviction rate was less than 50 percent.
Bronx residents depended on Glaberson, because of his journalistic credentials, to uncover those flaws in the system, and as the Malone court shows, the Bronx doesn’t have the only system in need of an exposé. It falls on court reporters like Glaberson, who have a far-reaching platform inaccessible to victims of injustice or even local activists, to put the abuses of these courts on the national stage. Due to the accountability that reporting provides, journalists are an integral part of ensuring that justice is carried out on a day-to-day basis. America’s imperfect judicial system often calls for such policing.
However, the police have abandoned their posts as judicial journalism has declined. Covering courts has traditionally been the responsibility of local newspapers, but as circulation and advertising revenues continue to wane, many organizations have been forced to cut staff or close down altogether. Concurrently, many Americans have switched to online news, leaving newspapers straining to keep up with payment models that fit the 21st century. These factors have fundamentally undermined court reporting. The Providence Journal, for example, no longer has the resources to publish a daily log of arrests, while larger newspapers don’t have the manpower or will to report on small-town crime nationwide. Without local newspapers reporting on the courts, discoveries like those made by Glaberson will vanish from the journalistic stage. Their replacement — online reporting — isn’t always a reliable source of facts. ProPublica, an organization dedicated to revealing abuses of power to the public through active reporting, puts it this way: “We face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking.”
Nevertheless, court reporting continues to play an essential — if diminished — role in the overall reform of the national justice system. Glaberson’s journalism certainly mattered to the woman who, according to the bias of the Malone judge, deserved a regular pounding. And some reporters are working to bring judicial journalism back. Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, announced in early February that he would leave the paper to head the Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing in-depth investigative reporting on US courts. The organization, which will launch in mid-2014, promises to instigate judicial reform by providing reliable, publicized and well-funded information on America’s failing judicial system.
Institutions like the Marshall Project are principally designed to mimic the job of traditional court reporting: to ensure that the system functions properly or blow the whistle until it does. But against the backdrop of investigative journalism’s decline, these institutions are facing a hard sell. Unless public demand for increased judicial accountability can drive support — and money — towards more such efforts, the Marshall Project and court journalists nationwide might be left with little more than empty pockets and broken whistles.
Asher Woodbury ‘17 is a potential Physics and Public Policy concentrator.
Art by Anisa Holmes