August 14, 2007
The Sledgehammer Gavel (Bob Franken)
@ 10:15 am
There is an old joke about the brilliant psychiatrist who dies suddenly. When he gets to the Pearly Gates, he berates St. Peter.
“Why did you take me away so early?” he exclaims.
“Well, we have a problem with God,” St. Peter responds. “He thinks he’s a federal judge.”
Now, far be it from me to belittle the judicial branch. Were it not for that body’s insulation from a “tyranny of the majority,” appointed-for-life federal judges would never have been able to order the civil rights protections and right the other wrongs that the politicians had either ignored or, often, demagogically exploited.
However, it is also true that they can be so isolated they don’t see beyond their own courtroom.
Case in point: U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton. He becomes the latest to order that reporters must reveal their sources.
This time, he’s acquiescing to the lawyers for Steven Hatfill. They have succeeded in demanding that reporters disclose the “anonymous sources” in government who told them Dr. Hatfill was a “person of interest” in the investigation of the “2001 anthrax attacks.” Judge Walton has taken the easy way out.
It may well be true that in this particular case, Hatfill’s quest for justice can be aided by identifying the officials he claims violated his rights. That’s the same rationale used by the judge in the CIA leak investigation. In other words, the case at hand is the be-all-end-all.
But it’s not. While it is true we claim to be a nation ruled by law, we are also one that relies on a supposedly informed electorate.
All too often, those in government and our other institutions go to great lengths to keep citizens in the dark about what they’re doing. Time and again, the media, badly flawed though they may be, are the only ones who bring this essential information to light. They usually must depend, like it or not, on “sources” who have one motivation or another. Frequently they fear retribution for making dubious behavior public.
The short-sighted rulings demanding that reporters disclose their sources or go to jail present a stark choice to people who are simply doing their job. They will certainly chill the aggressive journalism that has often saved this country from itself — and will definitely terrify the person who wants to right whatever the day’s wrongs are.
The rulings also call into question the competence of investigative agencies that seem unable to identify their own employees who might be guilty of loose-lipped misbehavior.
Why should independent watchdogs be forced to become their detectives?
Our judges need to remember the “prudence” in “jurisprudence.”
Justice should not be so blind that it can’t see beyond the courtroom doors.