What: Dan Bernstein discusses his new book, “Justice in Plain Sight”

When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 24

Where: Paulina Springs Books, 252 W. Hood Ave., Sisters

Cost: free

Contact: paulinaspringsbooks.com or 541-549-0866

I t’s easy to take for granted that members of the public can learn the details of almost any criminal court case in the U.S., either by attending proceedings in person or watching or reading related media coverage. But up until the mid-1980s, judges frequently slammed courtroom doors shut in the faces of the public and the press.

In “Justice in Plain Sight: How a Small-Town Newspaper and Its Unlikely Lawyer Opened America’s Courtrooms,” retired journalist and columnist, Dan Bernstein, revisits how in 1984 and 1986 his former employer, The Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, California, took two cases arguing for increased press access to courtroom proceedings, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. These cases (along with two previous cases in 1980 and 1982) challenged the prevailing legal notion that the Constitution guaranteed criminal defendants a “speedy and public trial,” but did not ensure the public or press had access to those proceedings.

Bernstein will discuss his book and the lasting implications of these decisions at an event on Aug. 24 in Sunriver. The author lives in Southern California and spends most summers with his wife at their vacation home in Camp Sherman. He has previously written two children’s books, but this is his first full-length, nonfiction work.

Although Bernstein worked at The Press-Enterprise as these cases made their way through the courts, he was only peripherally aware of them at the time. It wasn’t until just before his retirement from the newspaper in 2014 that he stumbled across the cases again, began researching them further and realized their broad significance. He was also intrigued by the fact the attorney who argued the cases on behalf of The Press-Enterprise, James (Jim) Ward, was just a general business lawyer and not a recognized legal expert on constitutional issues.

“I thought this David and Goliath-type story might be a good topic for a book, but I was really intimidated by the process of writing a full-length, nonfiction book,” Bernstein said. “Early in the process I would hedge and tell people that I was only thinking about writing a book. I had one foot out the door just in case things didn’t work out.”

Bernstein persisted in what he described as “fits and starts” for the next five years until “Justice in Plain Sight” was completed. It was published by the University of Nebraska Press in January.

“It’s the story of a newspaper that was really committed to its readers,” Bernstein said. “They really didn’t have to take this battle on — it wasn’t going to improve their circulation. But the publisher, Tim Hays, and the executive editor, Norman Cherniss, really felt it was important to inform the community, not just by reporting about a horrible crime, but also about what happened afterwards in order to maintain public confidence in the justice system.”

The central issue in all four cases was a judge’s responsibility to strike a balance between the constitutional First Amendment right of press freedom, with a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial (which could be negatively impacted by media coverage). The Supreme Court rulings in favor of The Press-Enterprise focused on transparency in the jury selection process and pre-trial proceedings. They have since been cited by judges in thousands of rulings, ranging from obscure local trials to cases of great national interest such as the Aurora theater shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing. While these Supreme Court decisions don’t guarantee press and public access to courtrooms in every circumstance, they have shifted the onus to judges who must now consider various alternatives to a closed court and justify their reasons for barring access.

In the book, Bernstein also provides rare and fascinating insights into the inner workings of the highest court in the land by delving into the personal writings and papers of several of the Supreme Court justices who presided over these cases. He reviewed their memorandums and notes on the deliberations, and draft opinions.

The documentation revealed some of the divisions between the justices who sat on the court at that time and how their thinking about these legal issues evolved.

“The irony is that here they are ordering courtrooms be open during trials, jury selection and preliminary hearings,” Bernstein said. “But at the same time, the way the Supreme Court makes its own decisions is not open at all. You can only see it well after the fact. Often justices have to die before their papers become available.”

More than 30 years after The Press-Enterprise cases, the Supreme Court now finds itself under increasing scrutiny due to the controversy surrounding recent appointments and speculation about the its perceived politicization. In this context, “Justice in Plain Sight” provides a timely and intriguing glimpse at the operation of an earlier Supreme Court, which was functioning in the aftermath of the political and social upheaval of the 1970s.

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