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Reporting tips

From the Spring 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12. Reporters interested in investigating hidden dockets…

From the Spring 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12.

Reporters interested in investigating hidden dockets in state or federal court have to be prepared to devote a lot of time and perseverance. Here are some tips from those who have done it:

Don’t get off track. If you notice a case disappearing from the public docket or a gap in sequential case numbers, don’t let breaking news get in the way of following up. “There’s always pressure to produce daily stuff. You’ve got to push back” and carve out time, said The Miami Herald’s Dan Christensen.

Learn judicial lingo. In the Herald ‘s reporting, Christensen and colleague Patrick Danner discovered that “confidential” meant one thing to the two of them and an entirely different thing to court clerks, who automatically docketed all cases marked “confidential” on a secret docket completely shrouded from the public. Knowing that helped the reporters ask the right questions.

“When you ask the right questions, you can get the answers,” Christensen said.

Don’t get discouraged. Set it aside and revisit it later. Christensen tried to uncover secret dockets in state courts several years ago and wound up with nothing.

Learn how the judicial system works. For the “Secret Dockets” investigation, the Reporters Committee wanted to know each step in the process of docketing cases in U.S. District Court in Washington. Much of it never made it into print, but understanding the process helped the reporting.

Don’t assume you have to do all the research. Check to see if data you seek already exists from the judiciary.

Research the law. There isn’t much case law on the issue of secret docketing &#151 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.), which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia; and the Court of Appeals in Manhattan (2nd Cir.), which covers Connecticut, New York and Vermont, have ruled hidden docketing unconstitutional. If you are researching state courts, learn what, if anything, the state’s highest court has ruled on the matter. &#151 KBM