A View from the Bench A judge’s interaction with the media is governed by many different factors of which a reporter should be aware.
Most important are the serious ethical restrictions imposed on judges by court rules. These prevent the judge from engaging in ex parte (i.e. one-sided) or certain other communications concerning a proceeding to which the judge is assigned. The Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct requires a judge to abstain from public comment about a pending or impending proceeding in any court. The judge is, however, permitted to make limited public statements in the course of the judge’s official duties, and may explain court procedures. Like everything else in the law, ethics rules are subject to interpretation. Some judges take a strict view and engage in no discussions about a case. These judges’ remarks are confined to open court in formal, recorded proceedings or by written order filed with the clerk’s office. Less strict judges are willing to informally discuss the case or explain court procedures. Regardless of their approach, nearly all judges will be conscious of the need to not only be impartial but to appear impartial. A judge’s first duty is to the case they are adjudicating. The judge does not want some ill-chosen word or phrase shared with a reporter to compromise the case. At times, the judge will not address a reporter’s needs and, to some degree, the public’s right to know, in favor of reaching a fair result for the parties before them. A reporter may have little difficulty getting answers to procedural questions, such as, “What motions will you be taking up at the hearing?” On the other hand, the reporter shouldn’t be surprised if the judge has no interest in answering substantive questions, such as, “How will you rule on the motion to suppress?” In some cases, the judge’s explanation of trial issues will have to wait until post-trial matters are resolved and the dust has settled, even though that might well be long after the public’s interest in the case has died down. Reporters will need to feel their way with each judge and see how receptive the judge is to discussions about legal issues in pending or upcoming cases since judges are aware jurors may not obey the order to refrain from seeking out information about the case during the trial. The judge might even be willing to suggest, for background and educational purposes only, and without a hint of how they might be resolved, what serious issues might develop in the trial, so the reporter can be better prepared. (Of course, the lawyers in the case might be better and more willing sources for much of this information). If a judge does not want to discuss a matter, they may designate a court administrator or the Judiciary’s Public Information Officer to speak on behalf of the court. In high-profile cases, the Maryland Judiciary’s Government Relations and Public Affairs (GRPA) Division will handle media issues.
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