Watchdog story on the courts

A few months ago I wrote about an initiative at the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY, to have a watchdog team tackle hard issues — a prospect I was skeptical about given the job cuts and mandated time off at Gannett, the D&C’s owner.

Today, however, I must admit a watchdog story by David Andreatta on the fact that some court documents in Monroe County are never filed (as they are supposed to be) and sometimes are seen by no one but the judge, even after the case is done, is a great watchdog story.

Is it a sexy story? No.

But is it one that matters? Yes.

It’s the kind of story that newspapers need to do. They need to hold public officials accountable. My only complaint about the story is that I wish it had been a little clearer about why the average citizen should care about this. It does try. Andreatta writes:

The rules demand that all documents considered by judges be filed with the court clerk.
Yet some court papers are never filed — and therefore unavailable to the public — because they are submitted directly to judges who return them to the parties when a decision is made.

I don’t know if the average person realizes the implications of this paperwork “oversight.” How are we, the public, to judge our judges if we don’t know how they are coming to their decisions? If we can’t see all the documents, how can we tell? How would we know if anything questionable or shady went on? We have no way to judge.

Sometimes, I think in the name of objectivity, journalists miss a great opportunity to inform our audience. With all that’s going on in today’s world, people don’t always have the time to connect the dots. I think journalists need to do that for them. That’s how we can take being a watchdog to a new level.

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