Sources of Information

 Unofficial Sources  

Official Sources  

 

Unofficial Sources.  

Numerous persons associated with the legal or court system can provide information concerning legal issues and events.

A. Court clerks. The clerks (and their deputies) keep the official records for the courts.

1. They generally are knowledgeable about basic court procedures and can provide information about when court hearings are likely, which judge is expected to hear a case, what bail has been set, etc.

2. Clerks cannot practice law and do not interpret court decisions, but they can provide unofficial tips on when decisions can be expected, etc.

B. Court bailiffs. Like the clerks, bailiffs (usually deputy sheriffs) can provide unofficial information about events in the legal system.

1. They are not under the same constraints regarding public comments as are lawyers and judges involved in a case.

C. Lawyers. Lawyers not involved in a case may provide background information and interpretive comments on pending cases.

1. They are not under the same constraints regarding public comments as are lawyers and judges involved in a case being reported by the media.

2. Because of their involvement in the adversary process, lawyers generally are critical and perceptive analysts of legal issues and events.

3. However, because of their involvement in the adversary process, lawyers generally act as advocates of legal issues and events, and therefore their objectivity must be assessed critically.

D. Law enforcement officers. Prosecuting attorneys, police and sheriff's deputies can provide information, although they sometimes are under court or departmental restraints on the amount or type of information that can be disclosed.

1. A word of caution: Their objectivity must be assessed critically, in light of their desire to see alleged perpetrators of crime convicted and punished.

E. Jurors and witnesses. These persons may be willing to discuss a case either during the trial itself (witnesses) or after the trial is over (jurors).

1. Expert witnesses, such as engineers or doctors, may provide insight to readers that has not been fully developed on the witness stand.

2. Jurors should never be questioned during a trial, but often are willing to discuss a trial afterwards.

3. Some courts have local rules forbidding contacts with jurors, and the reporter should determine beforehand whether such rules exist.

4. Contacting a juror during a trial could result in a mistrial, with the blame placed on the offending reporter.

Official Sources.  

A. Circuit court records. All court records are kept by the court clerk.

1. Anything filed by lawyers in a case is made a part of the court's file on that case.

2. All filings are noted on a docket sheet by date of filing and a description of the materials filed.

3. The docket sheet gives a quick summary of the history of a case and frequently are available online. The federal courts make docket information available online.

a. Juvenile court records and files are not open. This includes records of offenses committed by juveniles, adoption records, etc. (But see Chapter V, The Juvenile Courts.)

b. The meetings and records of petit juries, grand juries and judges generally are not open to the media. (See sections 610.010-.030, RSMo 2004)

B. Appellate court records. Appellate court clerks maintain files and records of cases similar procedurally to the circuit courts. These records usually contain:

1. A transcript – word-by-word report of the proceedings in the trial court, prepared by the official court reporter. Normally, a transcript contains several hundred pages.

2. A legal file that consists of the various filings made in the trial court, the jury's verdict and court's judgment, etc. (See Rule 81.12.)

3. Briefs filed by attorneys for the parties. The briefs contain a factual statement of the case as presented to the trial court and the legal argument (with supporting cases and statutes) that the party wishes to make in advocating its position.

4. Periodically, the Missouri appellate courts publish their dockets and other materials related to the cases pending before them.

a. Dockets of cases to be argued at the next term of court are printed approximately 30 days in advance by the three districts of the Court of Appeals; they may be obtained from the court clerk.

b. The Supreme Court information officer publishes a "pending issues summary" of all cases before oral arguments.

i. These summaries set out the legal issues before the court in each case.

ii. The summaries may be obtained from the court clerk.

c. After cases are decided, the Supreme Court clerk's office publishes case summaries of all appellate court opinions.

i. These monthly summaries are unofficial but enable readers to quickly pick up the major issues which are decided.

ii. The full opinion may be read for a fuller understanding of the case, quotes, etc.

iii. The summaries can be obtained from the Supreme Court clerk.

iv. “Slip,” or unofficial opinions, are available online at http://www.courts.mo.gov/page.asp?id=1944.

5. All of the records of cases filed in the appellate courts are open records, unless ordered sealed by the court.

C. Court personnel. Certain court officials and personnel may provide official information.

1. Judges who are hearing a particular case usually will not comment on that case, either before or during trial.

a. On exceptionally rare occasions, a judge may explain or amplify his ruling after a case is closed.

b. Appellate court judges rarely, if ever, discuss a case even after it is decided; they prefer to let the court's opinion speak for the court. (See Rule 2, Canon 3(A)(4).)

2. Lawyers involved in a case may comment publicly about a case before, during or after trial, but they are limited by the Code of Professional Responsibility and court rules on what they can say.

a. They must protect the confidentiality of clients, and usually do not wish to reveal trial strategy beforehand.

b. On occasion, trial courts may issue specific orders ("gag orders") restricting or prohibiting lawyers and other court personnel from revealing any information about a pending case.

c. Most lawyers will explain court and trial procedures generally, if properly approached.

d. See Disciplinary Rule 7-107(G), Code of Professional Responsibility, for details.

3. Clerks of the court can provide basic procedural facts of a case.

D. Legal books, statutes, the Internet.

1. Many newsrooms have hard copies of the Revised Statutes of Missouri (published at least once every 10 years, with annual supplements).

a. This five-volume set contains all Missouri statutes and the Missouri and U.S. Constitutions.

b. The statutes are available from the Revisor of Statutes, State Capitol, Jefferson City, Missouri.

c. The statutes are also available on the Internet, at http://moga.state.mo.us/homestat.htm

2. Law libraries are generally maintained in the county courthouse by county bar associations and/or the courts.

a. They usually consist of basic legal encyclopedias,Vernon's Annotated Missouri Statutes, Southwestern Reporter (which prints Missouri appellate court opinions), and various other materials.

b. Reporters must be extremely careful in attempting to do their own legal research; this is a complex undertaking and research should be done only with expert assistance.

3. Law school libraries at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, University of Missouri-Columbia, St. Louis University and Washington University are generally accessible to reporters. The Supreme Court in Jefferson City has perhaps the most comprehensive law library in Missouri, containing nearly 100,000 volumes, and is open to the public weekdays.

4. "Slip opinions" are the opinions issued by an appellate court on the day opinions are made public.

a. These are typewritten copies of the court's opinions. Opinions will be published months later in the official publications (e.g., Southwestern Reporter).

b. These are now available on the Internet. See the Supreme Court of Missouri home page, which includes links to Missouri's appellate courts.

E. Bar associations. Local bar associations and The Missouri Bar can provide information or direct a reporter to the proper sources.

F. Rules and regulations of administrative agencies are published by the Secretary of State in the Missouri Register and Code of State Regulations.