Legalese 

A funny thing happened during this week's "Law School for Journalists," held Monday at the University of Memphis School of Law: The participants and attendees actually learned something! Credit for that -- and for the event itself -- must surely go to the sponsoring organizations: the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee; the U of M's Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law; the university's journalism department and its College of Communications and Fine Arts; and the Memphis Bar Association.

Most of the event's several panels, which mingled distinguished assortments of lawyers, judges, journalists, and other specialists, were substantial in both execution and scope, and some of them actually broke new ground -- or, more properly, unearthed the ground that's already been broken, largely unbeknownst to the public at large and even to many of the participants themselves.

A case of the latter was vented in an afternoon panel titled "Ethical Limits of What Judges and Lawyers Say," which revolved around a 2002 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Republican Party of Minnesota v. White. The 5-4 majority opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, usually deemed to be the court's most conservative voice, and established what many observers believe to be the right of judicial candidates seeking popular election to express opinions on issues that might subsequently end up within their jurisdiction.

Didn't know that? Neither did we. We're more than surprised, however. We're concerned -- especially since that interpretation would clash directly with the canons of official conduct by which judicial elections in Tennessee have always been held. Historically, these elections have been dull affairs, with the candidates scrupulously shying away from anything resembling an opinion on litigious matters of the day or contentious issues in general. Campaign speeches by judicial candidates in Tennessee have largely been confined to the name-rank-serial-number order of things, but the Scalia ruling puts all that up for grabs. Though, as Monday's panelists suggested, any opinions advanced by a judge might subsequently force his recusal from adjudicating the point being litigated.

In other words, stay tuned on that one. And for that matter, on the issue that was bruited about in the last panel of the day, entitled "Reporter's Shield Law in State & Federal Courts." Among the issues was the question of whether "shield" laws (which, among other things, protect a journalist's traditional right to withhold the sources of his reporting) apply to the new fraternity of bloggers, a freer and easier breed with a more relaxed attitude to questions of libel and accuracy. Also discussed was the matter of whether former New York Times reporter Judith Miller was entitled to shield protection in the Valerie Plame case -- which is to say, whether she was functioning as a journalist at all.

Any conclusions reached by anyone on these and other choice matters on Monday were A) not legally binding and B) subject to the most strenuous and informal sorts of appeals at the after-hours reception. Hear ye! Hear ye! By all means, let's reconvene this court of public opinion next year.

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