McGuire on Media

Sometimes a newspaper’s ethics guidelines have to be flexible

Okay, class, here’s your ethics hypothetical: Your veteran columnist and your investigative reporter have been aggressively covering abuses in the probate court system. They cover them so well the State Supreme Court Chief Justice sets up a 17-member commission to investigate probate practices.  The chief justice names as chair of that judicial committee your columnist’s sister! As Humphrey Bogart would say, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

So, Mr. Editor, what do you do? Do you remove the columnist from coverage of the issue?  The standard book on ethics would probably say the appearance of a conflict of interest is too strong. The columnist has to stop doing stories on the probate court system.

The book would be wrong. Fortunately Randy Lovely, the editor of the Arizona Republic, did not get trapped by the “book.” 

The aggressive columnist is Laurie Roberts. She has been writing frightening, outrageous exposes of the Probate Court since late 2008. Her dogged reporting and pleasant prose have made this observer pretty convinced there is an ugly smell emanating from the halls of Probate Court.

So it was mighty unsurprising when the State Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch appointed a special judicial commission to investigate. Berch was not shy about admitting  that Roberts’ columns played a role in prompting the commission. Speaking to Roberts for her column, Berch said: “I live in the real world…. I’ve read your columns. They cause concern, and I just think that any system, it’s a good idea to take a look at all of your processes and make sure things are working the way they’re supposed to work.”

All that was logical and obvious. The shocker came when Berch appointed Division One Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Ann Scott Timmer. Timmer is Roberts’ sister! Now, I’ve gotten used to a lot of political oddness here in Arizona over the last 10 years or so; but, for me, that appointment stretches all oddness boundaries.

Roberts exercised what I thought was tremendous restraint when she wrote: “The appellate judge who will head that committee is my sister, Ann Timmer. Why Berch couldn’t find another in the army of judges around this state to chair this effort, I do not know.”

In late March, Lovely stayed on the high road when he wrote a measured column describing the Republic’s planned procedures in light of this very odd appointment. Lovely wrote that Chief Justice Berch did not see any potential conflict in having Timmer and Roberts involved in the case. Lovely described that as the “black and white view of a jurist.” He said while he respected Berch’s position he was concerned about “gray areas.”

The key to Lovely’s column was this pronouncement: “After wrestling with whether Roberts can continue to report on this ongoing story, I’ve decided that these cases are too important to pull her off the investigation. The stories need to be told, and she has the background and knowledge to tell them.” Lovely then announced several safeguards that are worth reading.

For this old warhorse’s money Lovely played it exactly right.  He took the high road. He never questioned Berch’s motives. (I am afraid I do, but I know nothing beyond what I read.)  He recognized how “important” Roberts’ work is to justice, and he has been totally transparent. Every time a Roberts column on  the probate mess appears this note appears: Editor’s note: Roberts’ sister, Appellate Court Judge Ann Timmer, is chairing a committee to review Probate Court practices. The Republic is disclosing the relationship to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.

I know that note appears because it appeared Monday when Roberts wrote a blistering column contending that a probate judge shared advance copies of judicial orders ONLY with the very lawyers who stood to benefit from the order and even accepted revisions from them! Holy propriety, Batman! To the naked, uninformed eye there seems to be some very serious double dealing occurring here.

Roberts is keeping the heat on, and Arizona residents and Republic readers are the clear winners.  Roberts is able to continue her aggressive reporting because her editor, Randy Lovely, did not fold when he encountered a judicially imposed conflict of interest problem. Lovely properly chose to serve the investigation rather than be whipsawed by appearances. The greatest number of people have been served by Lovely’s utilitarian ethical decision to serve the common good.