Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., in a rare public comment on reporters, said today that the court sometimes finds that news reports "bear very little relation to what we decide" in a particular case.
Powell, who moderated a panel discussion on courts and citizens at the American Bar Association's annual meeting here, also said that, "instead of having any hostility" toward the media, the high court depends...very much" on news coverage to educate the public about the court's decisions.
Powell was responding to a comment that it seemed from recent decisions the court disliked the press.
"I certainly don't feel that way and I don't think any of my brothers feel that way," he said. He added that, on balance, he thinks the media does an "excellent job" in its court coverage.
Last week, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger indicated in an interview that he thought Washington reporters had misinterpreted some of the court's recent decisions.
Burger also said that some judges had misinterpreted the Supreme Court's controversial 5-to-4 decision in July that the public has no constitutional right to attend criminal trials.
Since that decision nearly 40 attempts have been made to close both pretrial and trial proceedings. The decision said that if both the defense and the prosecution agree, and the judge approves, court proceedings can be closed to the public.
Burger, who signed the majority opinion, wrote separately, however, that the decision applied only to pretrial proceedings.
Powell, who was in the majority but wrote a separate opinion, today joined in the unusual postdecision discussion of the case.
"The opinion was based solely on the Sixth Amendment," which guarantees defendants the right to a public trial, Powell said. The majority opinion, written by Justice Potter Stewart, said the amendment does not give the public the right to attend trials. The majority did not address the question of the First Amendment right of the press to attend court proceedings.
"I myself decided in on the First Amendment question was not reached" by the court, Powell said today. In his opinion, Powell wrote that while he agreed with the majority, he felt that the press may have an independent First Amendment right to attend court proceedings.
The decision, involving a reporter for Gannett, has been strongly criticized by publishers, who said they felt it would lead to a widespread ban of reporters from court proceedings.
However, today, after setting out his analysis of the case, Powell said "one must wonder whether some of the crying wolf may be a bit premature."
Justice John Paul Stevens, in the audience, declined comment when asked if he thought trial court judges had misinterpreted the Gannett decision.