Philly judges tell reporter he can't take notes in court

By John O'Brien | May 23, 2011


PHILADELPHIA (Legal Newsline) - Some judges in what has been called the nation's biggest "Judicial Hellhole" are telling a reporter for a new legal publication not to take notes in their courtrooms.

Jon Campisi of the Pennsylvania Record, an online legal journal based in Philadelphia that launched this month, has been told by two judges of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to put away his notepad. Campisi says Supervising Judge William Manfredi also accused him of having an agenda, since the Pennsylvania Record is owned by the Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Reporters routinely take notes in the courtrooms throughout Pennsylvania without incident," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. "This is problematic from a constitutional point of view.

"It conflicts with the right to open courts."

The first instance occurred during a playground premises liability trial, when a woman approached Campisi to tell him Judge George Overton did not want him taking notes during closing arguments. She added that note-taking during any other portion of the trial was fine.

Before an asbestos trial, a clerk for Judge Norman Ackerman informed Campisi that Ackerman had no problem with his attendance. However, the clerk told Campisi that no notes could be taken.

Next, Campisi went to Manfredi to ask if there was a court policy outlawing note-taking. The two spoke over the phone, with Manfredi wanting to know what Campisi's angle was, why he was covering trials and what his company's goals were.

Campisi said he didn't have an agenda and is only interested in covering civil litigation in an objective manner. Manfredi said it was rude of Campisi to call the supervising judge about the matter and that the Rules of Civil Procedure permit a judge to ban note-taking if he deems it is distracting to the jury.

Judge Webster Keogh, the administrative judge of the civil trials division, told the Pennsylvania Record that note-taking isn't illegal but a judge has discretion to disallow it.

"It isn't unconstitutional to wear a hat in the courtroom, but a judge can make you take your hat off," Keogh said.

"Summarily, no they cannot (ban pen-and-paper note-taking)," Melewsky said, noting that there are limitations on electronic recording devices because they can be distracting.

"(Pen and paper are) quiet and not disturbing."

Melewsky said it is the first time she has heard of a courtroom banning note-taking in her five years at her current job. If the problem is with Campisi's perceived agenda as an employee at an ILR-owned publication, that is also shaky constitutional ground, she says.

"If it is based on the content of the speech, then that raises extraordinary issues," she said. "The government can't limit speech solely because of its content or its agenda or what it believes the agenda is."

Loyola University professor Jona Goldschmidt once challenged an Illinois judge's ban on note-taking in 2006, but a federal judge deemed his First Amendment claims moot because the judge began allowing note-taking.

Melewsky said a First Amendment challenge would have a likelihood of success.

"When you're talking about the limitations on a fundamental right like the First Amendment and the access to courts, the government has a high burden to meet," she said. "The courts, and rightly so, have a right to control the record and hearings, but this seems like an unreasonable requirement."

In December, the American Tort Reform Association named Philadelphia, home to the Complex Litigation Center, its No. 1 "Judicial Hellhole" in its annual report.

Philadelphia's CLC groups mass tort lawsuits, such as asbestos and pharmaceutical litigation, and puts them on a two-year trial track.

The ILR owns several other legal publications. They are Legal Newsline, the Southeast Texas Record, the Madison County Record and the West Virginia Record.

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