Banging The Final Gavel At Courtwatch

(CBS)
What Walter Lippmann wrote nearly a century ago is even truer today. "It is clear that in a society where public opinion has become decisive," Lippmann wrote in Liberty And The News, "nothing that counts in the formation of it can really be a matter of indifference." So please allow me briefly to share with you some thoughts about the formation of my own opinions about the law, and my coverage of it, as I wind down a rollicking decade of work as the television and online legal analyst for my cherished CBS News.

This column will be my last for CBSNews.com and that means the end of CourtWatch, one of the longest-running, continuously-updated legal blogs ever (indeed, it was a "blog" before that word was even invented). During its run (some 650 full-length columns, some 600,000 words, roughly the length of the Old Testament), CourtWatch relayed in detail large and small the hundreds of chapters which made up the story of American law during the first decade of the 21st Century. If you can remember a legal story from the past ten years, chances are CourtWatch covered it, in whole or in part, as the lawyers say.

Through the years, the column was me and I was the column. Its failings and limitations were (and are) mine and mine alone. Its successes, however, were (and are and will continue to be) shared by my friends and colleagues and bosses at the network, who gave me an opportunity to witness and chronicle some of the biggest legal stories in American history; a presidential impeachment, an election recount, and a terror attack so deadly and unprecedented that its constitutional impact is still uncertain. To be sure, CourtWatch lived through interesting times. That I was able to stick around as long as I did was not just a miracle but a blessing.

There were hundreds of columns about the legal war on terrorism and the death penalty and the politicization of the law. There were columns about the need for judicial independence and about the often murky interaction between the branches of government. There were about a dozen columns over the years calling out politicians for cynically buying into the myth of "judicial activism." There were columns about signing statements and the Posse Comitatus Act. There was even a column or two about good ol' Ruth Jordan. But there was not a single column about Britney Spears' custody problems, unless you count this one and, really, you shouldn't.

(AP)
With the exception of the Michael Jackson and Robert Blake trials in California in 2005, and the Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson, and Kobe Bryant cases a year or two earlier, CourtWatch generally left the cheesy tabloid stories to other legal analysts and reporters. "Can't sell your soul for peace of mind," sings Tom Petty, and there are plenty of CBSNews.com editors over the years, both current and former, who can attest to the crankiness they encountered when they asked me to chime in on some celebrity's misfortune -- or the misfortune of someone whom the media had temporarily turned into a celebrity.

I feel terrible for the families of Laci Peterson and Chandra Levy and Natalie Holloway. I can understand why they ran to Larry King or to Nancy Grace to try to publicize the search for their loved ones or their quest for justice. But every sensationalized, manipulated minute of their stories meant an ignored, unreported minute about the stories of the thousands of other loved ones who went missing or who were found dead during the decade.

One of the greatest hypocrisies in the current coverage of legal events is the elevation of stories involving telegenic (and typically white) victims or perpetrators of crime over stories involving minorities and the voiceless. I simply refused to join this cynical and arbitrary chorus. You can look it up.

But the absence of junk doesn't guarantee the presence of treasure. And despite my best efforts CourtWatch never fully tackled some of the great legal undercurrents of our time; the great disparity between the levels of justice rich and poor people receive; the explosion of America's prison systems; the disgrace of judicial elections; the molasses-slow federal judicial nomination process; the "unitary executive" theory and its impact upon the war on terror; the drive to decriminalize marijuana; the coming demise of the billable hour for lawyers. As Marlon Brando said to Al Pacino on the back patio near the end of "The Godfather," "there just wasn't enough time."

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Instead, CourtWatch devoted a great deal of its coverage to stories involving people like Terri Schiavo and Andrea Yates and John Allen Muhammad and Martha Stewart and Michael Skakel and Alfred T. Goodwin and Chandra Levy and Rick Gomez and Jeffrey Skilling and Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski and Donald Vance and Umer and Hamid Hayat and Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Elian and Lazaro Gonzales and Lionel Tate and David Boies.

Some of these names may remain significant to you. Some no doubt have faded from your memory or concern. All played center stage, even if only for one day, during the legal narrative of the past decade.

For years now, CBS News insiders have called CourtWatch "the note" because I send it around internally before it gets posted at CBSNews.com. But make no mistake. CourtWatch wasn't written primarily for the assignment desks in New York or Washington or Los Angeles or for our historic "Fish Bowl" at the Evening News. It was written for you, logging on at home, or in your office, or at school, and it was written always to try to translate for you the pell-mell of legal events and issues. It was written to bridge the gulf between the language of the law and the language of life.

Over the years, CourtWatch changed in fundamental ways. In the early days, the columns were mostly straight analysis. I broke down dense, technical judicial into plain English. I explained complex and confusing rules of procedures. I described for laymen the ministrations of justice and occasionally made rather tame predictions about an upcoming trial or case.

Looking back, I find some of those old columns naïve and formalistic; full of comment without perspective; interpretation without context. This was true whether the legal stories I was covering were overtly political or not (and, despite what the critics say, the vast majority weren't political at all).

As the years went on, however, and as I learned my beat, CourtWatch found its voice. It became radicalized -- not in a political sense but in a literary one. When you are lied to by public officials, over and over again, when your fighting faiths are worn down by the half-truths and misinformation and overzealousness by government shills, it is natural to become offended and then cynical about the cynical people whose judgments you are being paid to dissect. And so CourtWatch inevitably became a little edgier, a little angrier; a little more willing to call out public officials or private citizens whose conduct in the world of law and politics was unbecoming.

It was no longer enough, for example, to simply explain Bush-era policies toward terror suspects, for example. It became important to explain why those policies were contradictory, or unlawful, and why hypocrisy and fear precluded more reasonable approaches. CourtWatch's clear progression -- from supporter to skeptic of terror law policies -- generally matched that of the nation's federal judiciary. Like those judges, I learned from bitter experience not to necessarily buy what the Administration or the Congress, Republicans or Democrats, were selling. The predilection for fudging the rule of law, I have learned, is bipartisan, even universal.

(AP)
So I believe that history will side with me when it comes to evaluating the tenure of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, one of the worst cabinet officials in American history. I believe that the overzealousness of death penalty proponents will ironically lead to a dramatic reduction in the use of capital punishment in America. I believe that John Yoo and the other authors of the "torture memos" set back for decades the global perception of American law. And I believe that the crooks and cronies of the Clinton Administration were penne-ante operators compared with their successors. Don't believe me? Let's you and I compare notes in 30 years.

I wrote what my conscience pushed me to write; sometimes a little more, sometimes, to my eternal discredit, a little less. Although some of my bosses were occasionally uncomfortable with some of these more pointed pieces I do not apologize for any of them. I was there. I covered it. I read the briefs. I followed developments.

CourtWatch is my story and I'm sticking to it. You may not agree with these conclusions -- our research suggests that half of you don't -- but I hope in the end you came away from reading CourtWatch knowing precisely where I stood and why. Any column worth reading, even now, at least ought to come with that guarantee.

I started writing the column as a relative novice. I end it as a true expert -- not in the law (I would never presume so much) but in the coverage of it, the ebb and flow of its principles and priorities, and in the way it's absorbed by consumers of news. If CourtWatch is to have a legacy it is here, in the "formation" of its voice through ten long years of dramatic legal stories, in its evolution from a passive to an active commentary, and in its ability to highlight the frequent hypocrisy of the law's main actors. If CourtWatch were to have a tombstone and an epitaph I would want it to read: Tried To Warn You.

To those of you who read it through the years, thank you. Your support and comments meant more to me than you will ever know. To those of you who helped edit and post it, thank you. To those of you who helped me find stories and themes and angles, thank you.

CourtWatch may be departing the scene but I promise you I will endeavor to stick around for at least one more decade putting to public use my hard-earned but new-found expertise. The great Anthony Lewis once suggested that I might become "a tribune of the law." It is all I have ever wanted to be as a journalist, all I ever tried to be at CBS News as its chief legal analyst, and all I hope to be down the road no matter what the future holds.

Here are some highlighted columns over the last decade:

2009

"Thomas Strips Sense From Search" (June 2009)

"Sotomayor Confirmation a Done Deal" (July 2009)

2008

"Four Strikes, You're Out" (after June 2008 Supreme Court terror law ruling)

"Second Amendment, Unlocked and Loaded" (June 2008)

2007

"They Always Get Their Man" (after Padilla verdict in Aug. 2007)

"Nowhere to Hide for Gonzales" (March 2007)

2006

"Enron's Snakes Finally Snared" (May 2006)

"Constitution, Schmonsitution" (Oct. 2006)

2005

"Supreme Sorrow" (on the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist in Sept. 2005)

Post-trial advice for Michael Jackson (June 2005)

2004

"Good Riddance, Peterson Trial" (Dec. 2004)

Martha: An Admirable Loon (Sept. 2004)

2003

"Death Penalty Is Different" (Jan. 2003)

"Merry Christmas, Lee Boyd Malvo" (Dec 2003) http://bit.ly/6VQRik

2002

"A Dark Day In Court" (at the Yates trial Feb. 2002)

"Fire And Ice At Yates Trial" (Feb 2002)

2001

"Over Before It Starts" (for Moussaoui Dec. 2001)

"Gone But Not Forgotten" (on day of McVeigh execution June 2001)

2000

"Hornets' Nest" (following Bush v. Gore ruling Dec. 2000)

"Law Trumps Politics -- For Now" (Elian Gonzales case June 2000)

Click through this blog to read Andrew Cohen's columns from May of this year until now. Or check out our archive of CourtWatch columns dating from 2000 to May 2009.


You can follow Andrew Cohen on Twitter here.
  • Andrew Cohen

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