Desperately Seeking the News 

The people's press

The people's press

By Henry Walker

The Tennessee Supreme Court was meeting in special session. Five black-robed special justices, hand-picked by the governor just to hear this case, listened carefully as attorney John Jay Hooker, an old-fashioned orator, forcefully challenged the constitutionality of the state’s judicial selection process. Across the ornate, wood-paneled courtroom, State Attorney General Charles Burson sat with two of his top deputies, waiting for the state’s turn to argue. A Supreme Court justice, several of the city’s best-known attorneys, and a dozen reporters packed the spectator section—all there to see history in the making.

Twenty minutes after Hooker started, Lola Potter, a reporter for the Tennessee Radio Network, strode through the double doors at the back of the courtroom carrying a tape recorder and microphone. Wearing jeans and a promotional T-shirt, apparently oblivious to her surroundings, Potter walked to the podium where Hooker was speaking, crouched down beside him, and held the microphone about a foot from the lawyer’s nose. The audience gaped in surprise, but Potter stayed about 10 minutes, moving the mic even closer when Hooker’s voice sometimes dropped to a dramatic whisper. Once, she bumped his arm. “Excuse me,” Hooker muttered, continuing his argument.

“It was what I call a hit-and-run,” Potter said afterwards. “I needed four 15-to-20-second sound bites, and then I was out of there.”

Had any of the court’s regular justices been on the bench, the reporter would have been summarily ordered to sit down. The special justices may have thought Potter was there to help Hooker, who had earlier received permission to videotape the hearing.

“It was the most brazen thing I’ve ever seen in a courtroom,” said an exasperated Sue Allison, who handles media relations for the Supreme Court. Sitting 10 feet from Hooker, Allison tried gesturing to Potter, repeatedly mouthing the words “sit down” and pointing toward the chairs. Potter shrugged her shoulders and stayed put.

“[Allison] was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t tell what it was,” Potter said, adding that she had never covered a Supreme Court hearing before. Potter first argued that the specially appointed jurists were “not really the Supreme Court,” just five lawyers. After being told that the lawyers were, in fact, sitting as the Tennessee Supreme Court, Potter confessed, “Maybe it was a bigger deal than I realized.”

Six months ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court initiated a one-year experiment permitting television cameras and audio equipment in courtrooms under strict rules governing reporters’ behavior. Although Potter’s boss, Kurt Pickering, has been an active participant in media seminars concerning the rules, Potter herself—who broke several of the rules—said she knew nothing about them.

“This experiment is going to stand or fall based on the actions of the worst of us,” a television reporter complained during a recess. Many reporters feared Potter’s ill-mannered behavior would sour the court’s attitude toward all electronic media. “The rest of us got here early, set up our own equipment, and stayed out of the way,” one said. “[Potter] shows up late, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and sticks a mic in the lawyer’s face.”

Potter said she was “just doing [her] job” and suggested that anyone upset about her clothes “must live in a very small world.” Court clerk Cecil Crowson told Potter afterward that she’d be barred from the courtroom if she broke the rules again.

Only Hooker, a courtroom and campaign veteran, was unfazed. “She didn’t bother me a bit,” said the flamboyant lawyer, who wore a frock coat and stovepipe hat to the courtroom. Alluding to his own famous ancestors and quoting from the Gettysburg Address, Hooker argued to the special panel that the courts should be run “by and for the people” and that even non-lawyers are entitled to sit on the Supreme Court of Tennessee.

After trying several different excuses and half-hearted apologies, Potter finally hit on Hooker’s own issue. “Here’s this guy dressed like Abe Lincoln arguing that the courts belong to the people,” she said. “If that’s true, why shouldn’t the people who listen to the Tennessee Radio Network be able to hear him say it?”

Allison said the courtroom will soon install equipment allowing radio reporters to plug directly into the court’s audio system. But then, as long as the lawyer at the podium doesn’t mind a reporter squatting beside him with a microphone, the court and its staff shouldn’t either. That’s part of what Lincoln was talking about.

The verdict

Jaded by John Jay Hooker’s periodic crusades and mocking his sometimes scruffy appearance, most of the state’s media first ignored and then ridiculed Hooker’s lawsuit over judicial elections. This time, however, the old war-horse won. Although he failed to get his own name on the ballot, Hooker and attorney Lewis Laska persuaded the special court that controversial Supreme Court Justice Penny White must stand for election on Aug. 1. White had hoped to run in a yes-or-no referendum, a system devised by the state Legislature to protect incumbents while arguably complying with the state constitutional requirement that all judges be elected.

But there’s one hitch: Although the special court held that White and the other judges must now run in a “contested” election, the court ruled on Monday that no other candidates are eligible to run against her. Tuesday, the court changed its mind, allowing opponents until 4 p.m. Friday to get on the ballot. Early voting, however, begins Friday morning.

As a result of Hooker’s suit, the state’s court system is now in a tangled mess that, likely, will only be unraveled by a federal judge. Darts to The Tennessean for consistently underplaying one of the summer’s biggest stories and a laurel to Banner reporter Toni Dew, not only for being the first journalist to raise questions about some of Justice White’s court decisions but also, along with fellow staffer Andy Sher, for doing the best job of following Hooker’s case and exploring its ramifications.

As a result of Hooker’s suit, the state’s court system is now in a tangled mess that, likely, will only be unraveled by a federal judge. Darts to The Tennessean for consistently underplaying one of the summer’s biggest stories and a laurel to Banner reporter Toni Dew, not only for being the first journalist to raise questions about some of Justice White’s court decisions but also, along with fellow staffer Andy Sher, for doing the best job of following Hooker’s case and exploring its ramifications.

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