REMARKS BY CHIEF JUSTICE HENRY FRYE TO THE N.C. PRESS ASSOCIATION ANNUAL MEETING, THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2000, 11:30 A.M. AT THE FRIDAY CENTER, CHAPEL HILL.

 

When the Fourth Estate and Third Branch of Government meet, we each hold dear the U.S. Constitution and the companion Bill of Rights.   The judiciary and the news media both hold precious the public's right to know.

 

The media has an advantage over the judiciary, however, in the strides it has made technologically.  The media's advantage is that your funding is determined with each turning of the press or every aired commercial, while we in the courts must depend on public monies to pay for any technology.  North Carolina's court system is woefully behind the curve.

 

In Greensboro, thousands of arrest warrants go unserved.  In Charlotte, civil court cases are stacked in boxes around clerks' desks.  The courts in Thomasville aren't connected to the state computer system.

 

Your satellite technology can bring news instantly to someone's home from the other side of the world, but down the street, getting data from the court system is a step back in time.  As head of that system, I want to see these things change.

 

Our director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, Judge Tom Ross, will be taking recent findings of the GartnerGroup, the world's leading authority on information technology to the General Assembly.  If our legislators agree to the 65 to 90 million dollar funding over the next five years, we will just be beginning to catch up.

 

AOC is a unique operation.  No other government agency is as decentralized as is our court system.  This brings unique challenges.  Judges, Clerks of Superior Court, and district attorneys are all elected by the public.  It's a system, that despite some hurdles, is a tribute to a government by the people and for the people.  But, if we are to continue our important role as the place to resolve society's disputes, we must modernize technologically.

 

While I am here with you, I want to tell about several new programs that the courts have initiated recently.  Family Court is one.  As a pilot program in six counties, Family Court uses mediation and counseling to help resolve issues such as divorce or custody without going before a judge.  When a judge must step in, families with multiple issues only have to see one judge who will then have a broader picture of the problems.  The family is the basic unit of our society, and we're always looking for ways to improve our service to them.

 

To help Spanish-speaking people through our courts, a new Foreign Language Services Project is underway.  AOC will train and certify Spanish interpreters for criminal and juvenile cases, and develop guidelines governing the use of these interpreters.  We need interpreters who will interpret exactly what is said, and not what they think the Spanish-speaking person is trying to say.  This project is critical to our future as our state's population continues to diversify.

 

 

Another new effort is one that will open a dialogue between the courts and the media to create a better understanding of each other's needs.  With the support of the press association's attorney, Hugh Stevens, I am announcing today the formation of the Chief Justice's Media and the Courts Forum.  I have invited nearly 40 individuals to serve on this committee.  Representatives from the media, (both working press and managers), court officials, press and broadcast attorneys, law enforcement, and academicians will make up this body of thinkers.

 

When a similar group was formed in the early 1980's, the result was cameras in the courtroom.  A number of other issues were discussed such as whether or not to print names of rape victims.  We plan to re-open this important dialogue, addressing current needs as well as looking into the future as to how we can all best serve the public's interest.  The courts and the press both have their fair share of public criticism, and perhaps, we can both learn from each other how to address these concerns. 

 

One man who had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, sold his collection of books to the government to start the Library of Congress.  He believed strongly in education, believing the press was the "best instrument for enlightening the mind of man and improving him as a rational, moral and social being.  This man hated the occupation of politics, and yet did more to establish the core of this country's democracy, and with it, freedom of the press.  He said, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter."

 

This man, the author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia, also said that as men become better informed, their rulers must respect them more.  He felt that through freedom of the press, minds would be illuminated, chains of monkish ignorance and binding superstitions would burst. He said, "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." 

 

(We wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say about his recent personal press coverage).

 

He was not without caution when it came to press freedoms.  "The press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood," Jefferson wrote to Thomas Seymour in 1807.  That same year, writing John Norvell, he said, "My opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful (is)'by restraining it to true facts and sound principle only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers."

 

Jefferson said the press could be restored to strength by "recalling it within the pale of truth."  He recommended leaving open all avenues of truth rather than submitting the press to precise rules.  The press, he said is "the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions."

 

The goal of the forum is to help make court information as accessible as possible to the press while ensuring the right to a fair trial for prosecuting witnesses and defendants is maintained.  In the end, it is the pubic who wins.  As Jefferson said, "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."