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The Florida recounts

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3. Two years ago, a group of…

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3.

Two years ago, a group of journalists from around the country sat in an Atlanta hotel conference room and pondered this question: Which state has the best open meetings and records laws?

This exercise is engaged in periodically by attendees at the annual National Freedom of Information Coalition conference. It was no surprise to those of us who attend the conference every year that Florida was at the top of nearly everyone's list.

So it was with much interest and satisfaction that open government advocates watched the Florida recount in November and December. Florida may have a lot to answer for with its polling practices, but its open records, courts and meetings laws performed splendidly during the presidential recount.

Several remarkable images of openness stand out: Broward County Judge Robert Rosenberg (on the cover) intently looking at each paper ballot while media cameras captured every blink of his eyes. Lawyers for the state and the candidates arguing their cases at televised Florida Supreme Court arguments. Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters releasing briefs and court decisions almost instantaneously via the Internet.

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger noted in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia in 1980 that "people in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing." Burger's prescient observation rings even more true after the presidential election.

Every institution of state and federal government had a stake in the open process that surrounded the recount. We were mesmerized by scenes of county canvassing boards recounting ballots. We watched some of the nation's finest lawyers give legal arguments before state trial and appellate courts. Florida legislators publicly attempted to resolve the situation.

Perhaps most remarkably, and undoubtedly spurred on by the public's interest in the Florida court proceedings, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time allowed a tape of its hearing to be released just minutes after arguments concluded. Millions of Americans gazed at static television screens but hung on every word.

In any other country, the rollercoaster-like legal and political maneuvering we witnessed may have led to collapse of the entire government or even war. But as we watched and waited, we had confidence that the democratic system we put in place more than two centuries ago would work.

Sandra Chance, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, asks in our cover story, "I would like to know which state would have done it better?" The answer is none of them. Florida's open government statutes should be used as a nationwide model.

Florida's open recount process likely saved this nation from bitter strife and violence. For this, we should be grateful to the media organizations that championed the state's open government laws and the lawmakers who passed them.

— Lucy Dalglish

Publisher's Note: This issue of The News Media & The Law — the first issue of the 25th year of its publication — looks different. During the past year, we have added enterprise and feature reporting, graphics, photos and artwork, and tips to help journalists do their jobs better. In this issue, you will notice design and typography changes that we hope you will appreciate. Thanks for their hard work on the redesign project go to Editor/Legal Director Gregg Leslie, Managing Editor/McCormick Tribune Journalism Fellow Scott Matson, and Washington Post artist and designer Pam Tobey, who generously donated her time to help us come up with a clean, crisp new look. And a special thanks to the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation for funding the journalism fellowship that made it all possible.