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How to find and use data to cover the lower courts

By Ashley Balcerzak

Reporters write story after story about the vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat left by Antonin Scalia. But many news outlets overlook the benches in their local areas that can impact their communities much more directly: municipal courts.

During the IRE panel “Do criminal and municipal courts treat defendants fairly?” Kendall Taggart from BuzzFeed News, Ted Gest of the Criminal Justice Journalists, John Simerman of The New Orleans Advocate, and Judge Arthur L. Hunter, Jr. of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court talked about the best way to scout stories and use data to cover the lower courts. 

Taggart emphasized that while the stakes may not seem high, misguided policy decisions at the local level can have serious consequences. Always ask, “Where’s the harm?” when approaching courts, she said. While you can start with traditional sources, like defense attorneys, advocates or legal scholars, data may be a great first step in discovering institutional problems that people may not know about. 

When thinking of records:

  • Request entire jail records, not just a slice of data. You may miss important information.
  • Call up the administrative entities and ask about the data: How is it collected? What does it mean?
  • Trace the money. Who collects it? Look at the incentives and potential conflicts, Simerman said. The entities that track the money may be the most thorough trackers because they care if they get it. 
  • Search through old lawsuits against the city.
  • Read through judicial misconduct reports.
  • Request contracts between your local court, county jail, and outside entities.

While data is important, Gest said, readers may not care unless you have a compelling central character. Go out door-knocking, Taggart added, because a perfect source is not going to come to you. It can often be uncomfortable to find the most sympathetic victim, but that will make certain readers care. 

If you can't find that “perfect” victim, they said, make courtroom judges the central characters. The judge on the panel recommended approaching lawyers involved in the cases if judges won’t talk. Unless judges are ordered by a state Supreme Court to track information, Hunter said, they are not going to do it. Municipal courts have limited resources and only collect data if there is a good policy reason to do so.

And don’t expect municipal courts to keep good data, the panelists said. Look to the agencies around the courts or create your own databases. 

Ashley Balcerzak is a fellow at the Center for Public Integrity, where she covers state and local politics from a national level. She is pursuing her master's degree in journalism and public affairs at American University, and received her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University. Ashley's work can be found in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, TIME, Men’s Health and The Huffington Post.

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