Issues of bench and bar

In this case, a TV reporter is the judge

His court reporter said they were lovers; good sources said they quarreled in public. But the hearing was private.

By Lee Coppola

Lee Coppola is an investigative reporter at WIBV-TV in Buffalo, NY.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 10 (January 1990), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

He is one of four federal judges in the Western District of New York, which encompasses Buffalo and Rochester. For nearly a dozen years she was his court reporter, the official transcriber of courtroom proceedings.

According to her, she also was his mistress and was fired when the 72-year-old judge’s wife learned of their affair.

According to her, the judge assaulted her, ripped her blouse and laid bare her bra and breasts in a Buffalo cocktail lounge.

Do you go with the story? Is it even a story?

I made the final decision when my station, WIBV-TV in Buffalo, faced that situation recently.

It started when a source tipped me that the court reporter had tried to obtain a warrant for the judge’s arrest, but was rebuffed. Not so, the chief clerk of the court told me when I checked. She had visited the warrant clerk, left without a warrant and planned to return, the chief clerk said.

I waited to see if the warrant was issued. Then another source told me of the blouse-ripping incident. This very reliable source said the court reporter was having trouble charging the judge with a crime simply because he was a judge.

My source told me how to contact the court reporter. She seemed glad of my call and spilled detail after detail of what she said was her affair with the judge, her firing and the incident at the bar.

But as best I could figure (and I’m a lawyer), she was not being denied justice. Instead, she and the judge had been instructed to appear at a pre-warrant diversion hearing. That not-for-public-record hearing would determine whether sufficient evidence existed to merit criminal charges. (These hearings, which lessen the burden on City Court, settle minor disputes behind closed doors.)

For the first time I told my boss, News Director Tim Larson, what I had learned. We decided to hold off on a story until I did some checking. Here’s what I found:

  • The bartender at the cocktail lounge told a source of mine the court reporter’s blouse had been torn while she was with the judge, but his back was turned when it happened. They often had been together at the bar and sometimes argued, he told my source. He refused to talk to me.
  • Although the court reporter had summoned Buffalo police to the bar, no report had been filed. She charged cover-up. The police said it was treated as a domestic squabble and no official report was necessary.
  • The judge was not talking.

We decided to wait for the pre-warrant diversion hearing. Without supporting facts of wrongdoing by the court, the police or the judge, her accusations were not sufficient for a story.

The day before the hearing, I interviewed the court reporter on videotape for nearly an hour. She had pictures of the judge, fully clothed, in her apartment. She had pictures of herself in her torn blouse.

She said she had lost her job because of his wife, but when I probed she said the official reason was that she had authenticated as correct a court transcript that contained errors. (Clerks serve at the pleasure of the court; the timing of her dismissal may have been odd, but the reasons for it were not.)

She told me she and the judge had sex often, sometimes in his chambers on lunch break. She said he drank alcohol when he was on medication and that made him a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Did she think his ability to function as a judge ever was impaired? I asked. Sometimes he was impatient with lawyers or mean to them, she replied.

The day of the hearing I stationed a photographer outside the hearing room to get footage of the judge and the court reporter. A reporter for a competing station walked by as we videotaped and a reporter for Buffalo’s only daily newspaper talked to the court reporter.

At the hearing an assistant district attorney heard both sides and ruled that there was insufficient evidence for criminal charges. The judge reportedly admitted ripping the blouse, but claimed it was an accident.

Larson told me it was my call.

In my 16 years as a print reporter and seven in television I always have believed strongly in the public’s right to know. And I kept thinking that at least two other news outlets might use the story and we would be left out in the cold.

But I also wondered if, in this case at least, a line should be drawn to separate a public person’s private life from public scrutiny.

We didn’t use the story, deciding it was a domestic dispute like hundreds of others that occur daily in our viewing area.

True, a federal judge was involved, but his ability to do the job he had been doing for nearly two decades wasn’t in question.

I don’t know if I made the right decision, or if there is a “right” decision.

WKBW-TV led its newscast that day with “shocking” information about the judge. 

The BuffaIo News ran the story the next day on an inside page under a two-column headline. Both named the judge.