May 22, 2013

District Judge James Richardson forbade a Daily Times Herald reporter from taking notes at a vehicular homicide trial Tuesday in Audubon, a rare courtroom rule that some say is unconstitutional.

Richardson said a reporter's scrawls could "influence the jury in that they might think something is important if they see me writing," reporter Jared Raney said.

But Iowa reporters commonly take notes in courtrooms.

"This is the first time I've heard of a judge prohibiting a journalist - or anyone else, for that matter - from taking notes with a pen and paper in the courtroom," said Kathleen Richardson, of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which advocates for an open and transparent government. "There is a long-recognized legal right of the public to attend criminal proceedings and for the news media to cover them, as surrogates of the public. And it would be impossible for a journalist to accurately report on a trial without being able to take notes."

Raney said judge Richardson told him to file an expanded media request - which is commonly required to use cameras, camcorders and other electronic devices in Iowa courtrooms - if Raney wanted to take notes on paper. Such requests often take more than a week to gain approval, which would likely happen after the Audubon trial concludes for Kendall Ware, 57, of Lineville, who is accused of killing a boy in a 2011 drunken-driving crash.

Judges generally have the power to set their own courtroom rules, and Richardson could allow pen-and-paper reporting in his courtroom regardless of a formal expanded media request.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Larson, who oversees Richardson's court district of nine western Iowa counties, said he tried twice Tuesday to persuade Richardson to reverse his rule about taking notes but was not successful.

"I don't really agree with his position," Larson told the Times Herald.

An Illinois judge enforced a similar courtroom rule until a federal judge questioned its constitutionality in 2006.

"A sweeping prohibition of all note-taking by any outside party seems unlikely to withstand a challenge under the First Amendment," U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo wrote in February 2006. "A prohibition against note-taking is not supportive of the policy favoring informed public discussion; on the contrary it may foster errors in public perception."

Raney and fellow Times Herald reporter Douglas Burns reported on Ware's trial Tuesday afternoon by intermittently leaving the courtroom to jot notes.

Lawyers that represent the Iowa Newspaper Association and its member newspapers - which includes the Times Herald - asked Richardson to reconsider the rule this morning. Richardson initially put off the idea but later proposed a compromise in which reporters were allowed to take notes in the courtroom but were seated in an area where jurors could not easily see them.

The dispute over Richardson's note-taking ban comes amid a bigger statewide discussion of what electronic devices reporters should be allowed to use in Iowa courtrooms. The Iowa Supreme Court appointed a committee late last year to study the issue, which has been brewing for years as reporters have expanded the electronic and Internet tools they use.

Reporters in courtrooms have sent out live updates from major criminal trials over the Internet via Twitter, for example.

The court rules that govern media access have not been updated for decades. Some district judges in Iowa allow reporters to use laptop computers and voice recorders to take notes in courtrooms without filing an expanded media request.

Richardson was appointed a judge in 1986. He previously worked as city attorney for Audubon, Bayard and Coon Rapids.