A retired journalist from the Riverside (California) Press-Enterprise recounts his publication’s unlikely crusade to open court proceedings to the public; two appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Before the 1980s, judges throughout California routinely excluded journalists and citizens from courtrooms during preliminary hearings and jury selection in cases proceeding to trial. Along with most other news organizations, the family-owned Press-Enterprise accepted the restrictions. But three extremely high-profile criminal cases led the owner/publisher and his feisty top editor to challenge judges’ decisions to close their courtrooms during consequential stages of the proceedings. In addition to fully explaining the First Amendment issues at stake, Bernstein (The Tortoise and the Hare Race Again, 2006, etc.) humanizes the narrative by offering extensive portraits of the Press-Enterprise decision-makers, the unlikely lawyers they retained, the local judges involved, and the prosecutors and defense attorneys in the three death penalty cases: a botched bank robbery that ended in a bloody fashion, the rape and murder of a high school girl, and “at least a dozen drug-induced murders of elderly hospital patients by a misguided employee.” The author has clearly conducted prodigious research about the three cases, the local judges and lawyers, the justices serving on the Supreme Court during the 1980s, and the agonizing decision-making inside the Press-Enterprise newsroom. Bernstein longs for an era when a newspaper owner would spend large amounts of money to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court—not once, but twice during the same decade—with no guarantee for any financial return on the investment. Perhaps most enlightening and impressive is the author’s acquisition of notes from the justices and their clerks about the closed-door deliberations leading to favorable decisions about the openness of hearings and jury selections.
A narrowly focused book that reads smoothly, chronicling a newspaper’s dedication to doing “its job: tell readers about shocking crimes in their own backyard.”