Georgia Bar, Media, and Judiciary Conference

Judges, Journalists, and Lawyers meet to discuss journalism and the practice of law
On a cold Saturday in February, judges, journalists, and lawyers spent the day at the State Bar Conference Center discussing journalism and the practice of law. The 21st Annual Georgia Bar Media and Judiciary Conference, entitled “Georgia Judges, Journalists, Lawyers and the First Amendment: A Primer on Recurring and Emerging Issues and the Law,” brought together these disparate professions for a day of enlightening and sometimes contentious conversation on February 25, 2012, in Atlanta.

Mr. Mike Cuccaro, Administrative Office of the Courts, shared his perspective as a member of the conference planning committee. “Year to year we are always a little surprised at the quality and reputation of the speakers this conference can attract.” He continued, “Former District Attorney Spencer Lawton and the participating judges, led by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, really impressed attendees with their depth of thinking on the topics.” 

altThe first panel, “While the World Watched,” examined how the media portrayed the Troy Davis case. With two journalists who covered the story for years, Aly Palmer and Bert Roughton, the original district attorney from the case, Spencer Lawton, and an anti-death penalty activist, Stephen Bright, the conversation was lively (Ms. Aly Palmer, Daily Report, Mr. Bert Roughton, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mr. Spencer Lawton Jr., Chatham County, and Mr. Stephen Bright, Southern Center for Human Rights). No decision was made on the case, the use of the death penalty, or what could have gone differently. However, the panelists did agree that it is important for people to voice their side of the story to the media.

 “I always look forward to the Bar Media conference, since it features great topics and an opportunity for judges, lawyers, and journalists to come together to discuss issues of common interest,” said Ms. Aly Palmer. “Being on this year’s panel discussing the Troy Davis case presented a chance to reflect on the media’s coverage of a tough story. I don’t often take the opportunity to discuss my coverage of a story with the advocates involved, so that was a helpful exercise after years of reporting on a case that posed unique challenges.” One participant asked the panelists, “Was the media duped on this case?” Panelists responded that the media got its facts from legal documents, but encouraged lawyers to speak up if they ever think that the media is only sharing one side of the story.

The next panel of journalists talked about the changed media landscape. While every outlet has different policies on the use of social media, it is consuming the time of journalists across Georgia and the nation. Journalists now must compete with bloggers and citizens who do not have editorial supervision. This means journalists are trying to file stories, tweet, listen to trials, and stay neutral all at the same time. Mr. Greg Bluestein, Associated Press, talked about his experience on the panel. “As a reporter, we’re the ones who always get to ask the questions. It was neat being on the other side, and to hear the questions and critiques from judges and attorneys who want to learn more about the media’s role.”

The panelists did share that the cacophony of voices now present in people’s high-media lives makes news more democratic. The panelists (Mr. Greg Bluestein, Associated Press, Ms. Grayson Daughters, Daily Report, Ms. Beth Karas, CNN, and Mr. Leonard Witt, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange) also believed that cameras in the courtroom help to instill confidence in the judicial process. Also helpful to journalists and the public are courts that make documents easily accessible on the web.

altJudge James G. Bodiford, Superior Court, Cobb Judicial Circuit, and Judge Stephen Dillard, Court of Appeals of Georgia, continued the conversation on communicating with the public in the digital age. Judge Bodiford focused on the way he has changed juror instructions and his process for handling media requests in his court. Judge Dillard, called “a blogger before blogging was cool” by the moderator Mr. Hyde Post, told the audience how his relationship with social media has changed since he joined the bench. Ms. Jane Hansen, Public Information Officer for the Supreme Court of Georgia, spoke of her role as a “translator” of the Supreme Court’s decisions. She seeks to bridge the divide between the high court, the media, and the public and provide electronic documents to all interested parties.

A final presentation featuring Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia, Representative Wendell Willard, House Judiciary Chairman, and Mr. J. David McDade, District Attorney, Douglas Judicial Circuit, closed the day by previewing the now released criminal justice reform council legislative package. These three speakers were involved in the Governor’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform during the past year. They spoke of the work the state is doing as being “smarter on crime” rather than “softer on crime.” While disagreements still exist among stakeholders, all agreed that incarcerating everyone is not sustainable. Rep. Willard also spoke about accountability courts and encouraged each participant to attend a drug court graduation.

These panels along with two others, one roleplaying a sex abuse scandal and the other examining hot topics by supporters of the Republican presidential candidates, rounded out the conference. From law students to reporters, all participants enjoyed the experience.

Ms. Hansen, also a member of the planning committee, shared, "Planning for the Bar Media conference is always a great collaborative mix of lawyers, judges, and journalists who talk about issues of the day and how to make them relevant. This year's conference featured top-notch speakers who grappled with such provocative topics as coverage of the Troy Davis execution to child sexual abuse and the implications for courts, media, and the law. I’ve heard a number of lawyers and judges say that it's not simply a way to accumulate some CJE or CLE hours, but it's also an enjoyable way to do so. There are a lot of folks who come every year because the topics are current, and the presentations are fun."
The conference was sponsored by: Administrative Office of the Courts, American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bryan Cave LLP, CNN, Council of State Court Judges, Council of Superior Court Judges, Daily Report, Dow Lohnes PLLC, Emory University School of Journalism, Federal & Hasson LLP, Atlanta Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Georgia Press Association, Georgia State University College of Law, Institute of Continuing Judicial Education, Jackson Spalding, McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, State Bar of Georgia, Tort and Insurance Practice Section of the State Bar of Georgia, University of Georgia College of Journalism, and University of Georgia School of Law.


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