WHEELING – Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King compared his job to ditch digging as journalists and judges reversed roles at a statewide judicial education conference Oct. 17.
King said journalists sensationalize the work of judges and added, "What I do every day is like digging a ditch. It is not exciting."
On the first day of a four-day conference in the resort at Oglebay State Park north of Wheeling, journalists staged a mock hearing and judges covered it as reporters.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals set up the role reversal to give each profession a taste of life for the other.
Ohio Circuit Judge Arthur Recht opened the session by declaring, "Our branch of government is the least understood branch of government and the antidote to that is public understanding."
He said many court decisions have allowed the press into courts. He said, "But I have seen very few articles on why they don't come in."
He said, "Maybe it is a lack of trained people who understand and get it right. Maybe we are not doing enough."
He said some judges do not talk to journalists at all. He said they should, "within the bounds of ethical restraints."
Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin said judges fear saying things they should not say and they fear being misreported.
A mock hearing followed, with journalists as prosecutors, public defenders and judges. One acted as defendant, awaiting sentence for beating his wife. One acted as his wife.
The mock judges imposed a harsher sentence than the mock prosecutors recommended.
The real judges observed as mock journalists and composed news stories
Retired Cabell Circuit Judge L. D. Egnor cracked up the crowd with a parody of Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, long on attitude and short on accuracy.
Someone shouted, "He didn't get the sentence correct."
Moderator Robert Perraglia, a retired Rhode Island judge, asked what judges should do when reporters get it wrong.
King said, "You ignore it. You can't correct it. I don't care how many times you call."
Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher said, "Being a judge for 30 years you really learn not to care about it."
Perraglia asked what a judge should do in an election campaign if an opponent says he released a criminal on a technicality.
Benjamin said, "You talk about what the technicality is." He said that through adveion rtising, others can comment on the decision.
Perraglia asked how often reporters get it wrong. Someone said 25 percent of the time. Retired Wood Circuit Judge George Hill said 50 percent.
Hill said, "The word 'technicality' should be abolished."
Putnam Circuit Judge O. C. "Hoppy" Spaulding said an online reporter covers him but never comes to court.
He said, "The judicial system is the last organ of government that people still have some respect for. If the public loses faith in us we're in trouble."
He said, "If you know your county and somebody writes a bad story about you, people won't believe it. If they don't know you and you don't reach out, questions begin to arise."
He said, "Don't hide a thing. I always invite the media in because I want them to cover me."
Wheeling News Register editor Mike Myer said journalists feel intimidated by judges. He said, "We are embarrassed to admit that we don't understand."
He said not all courts are covered by journalism school graduates. He said some reporters make little more than minimum wage.
Starcher said he was elected because he was open to the media. He said it is hard to bridge the communication gap with the Chamber of Commerce and insurance companies "beating the drums and disparaging the judiciary day in and day out."
Former Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely said judges should speak through their orders and never give interviews.
He said, "A judge should never talk to the media about a case. Judges wear black robes so people will think they are priests."
He said, "Judges shouldn't get in the gutter like a candidate for county commissioner." He prescribed "distance and dignity."
Benjamin said, "I think people here underestimate the public. While it is uncomfortable to be criticized, fair criticism of elected officials is something we have to face."
In their stories, some judges focused on the sentencing while others focused on disagreements among prosecutors. This opened a discussion on story angles.
King said, "Why must there be an angle? Angles lead to a lot of inaccuracies and misleading the public about what happened."
Charleston Gazette reporter Andrew Clevenger said, "I want people to read my story, and I want it to be a story."
Myer reminded judges that newspapers print news to make money.
Journalists returned to their real jobs and judges continued their conference.
Through the rest of the conference judges reviewed guidelines in juvenile delinquency cases, studied the state code of judicial conduct, discussed developments in domestic relations law, and heard reports on meth labs and scientific evidence.