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Justice in Plain Sight

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Member Reviews

This book does a stellar work of bringing to the fore and to the attention of the readers a couple of seminal Supreme Court decisions whose ramifications are reverberating even now. What makes for some riveting reading is the explanation of the platforms and the triggers that formed the background for these cases. In particular a description of the protagonists, the mode and methodology of their arguments and the thinking process of the judges in dispersing with their judgments lingers long after after the covers have come down. The most refreshing aspect of Mr. Bernstein's book is the clarity and lucidity which he brings to even such technical a subject. Devoid of all legalese and bereft of jargons, this book is a pleasure to read!
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I got this book from the University of Nebraska Press through NetGalley. Overall, I enjoyed this book. After being locked out of state courtrooms due to arguments of juror privacy, a Riverside, California, newspaper decided to challenge the judges in court on First Amendment grounds. It's an interesting story well told. Dan Bernstein's writing is occasionally corny but in a good way, if that makes sense. It fits the story, as it's kind of that old-fashioned editorial style of writing. At times, it did take me out of the flow of the story a little bit and the book was adjectivally liberal, something of which a retired reporter should be more cognizant. But on the whole, it's a good story and Bernstein does it justice.
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Justice in Plain Sight is an excellent book for a specific audience.  As a lawyer, I was intrigued to read about the two Press Enterprise cases – something I hadn’t studied in law school.  The ultimate issue was whether the press and the public had a right of access to court proceedings, and if so, how to balance those rights with the privacy interests of the litigants and (would-be) jurors.   Given the current importance of the role of the press in today’s judicial system, a review of the cases that brought us here is clearly warranted.

The book itself begins with a bit of backstory, delineating the criminal cases that ultimately served as the backdrop for the Supreme Court decisions.  The book quickly escalates from there, giving insight into both the people behind the cases – those who worked at the newspaper and their legal team – as well as the intricacies of the law.  The legal discussion was fascinating, offering assessments of the various positions taken by the parties, as well as the notes and comments of specific Supreme Court Justices.  

Justice in Plain Sight was well-researched and well-written.  Given the fact that the cases were heard in the Eighties and the underlying events took place in the Seventies, it is impressive that Dan Bernstein was able to cull so much information from a wide variety of sources, including newspaper personnel, Supreme Court law clerks and other participants from both sides of the legal argument. 

I would highly recommend Justice in Plain Sight to anyone who is interested in the law and in the public’s role in the court system.

Note:  I received an ARC of Justice in Plain Sight from NetGalley and the University of Nebraska Press.  The above is my honest review.
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A fascinating book that shows the importance of local papers. The current Press-Enterprise is a sad shadow of its past, as is the Orange County Register. They used to be such fine papers.

I enjoyed this book because I remember everything that took place. I remember the criminal trials. i remember all the controversies Rose Bird caused, and the ultimately successful effort to get her off the Supreme Court because she let her biases dictate her decisions.
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Excellence In Plain Sight. This book does an amazing job of highlighting two crucial Supreme Court decisions, the immediate history leading up to them, the particular cases that spawned them, the people involved at every level of these cases, and even the impact these two cases would have many years later. And it explains some very particular legalese in a way that virtually anyone who can read at least at a high school level can read and understand easily. In other words, Bernstein does for the public what these cases themselves did for the press and lawyers: allows us to appreciate just how monumental these two cases were. Very highly recommended reading for everyone.
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These days it's common to see high profile trials on television, like those of Jeffrey Dahmer; Lyle and Erik Menendez; O.J. Simpson; Scott Peterson; Martha Stewart; Jody Arias; Dr. Conrad Murray; Casey Anthony; Aaron Hernandez; and others. At one time, however, courtrooms could be closed to the public on the whim of the presiding judge.

In this book, Dan Bernstein - a former journalist for the Riverside, California 'Press-Enterprise' - tells the story of his newspaper's leading role in two Supreme Court decisions that opened the courtrooms. Bernstein's story is fascinating from a legal standpoint, since the public now has a constitutional right to observe trials - and even preliminary hearings - from beginning to end. Exceptions occur if there are COMPELLING reasons to close the courtroom with NO OTHER REMEDIES - but this is a very high bar.

The book is also interesting for its details about the players, including newspaper people, attorneys, judges, law clerks, and Supreme Court justices. Bernstein describes their backgrounds, personalities, quirks, opinions and so on - all of which provides a fine personal touch.


Prior to the 1980s the public was often banned from California courtrooms for at least parts of trials. This was usually done to preserve the privacy of jurors during voir dire and/or to insure that the defendant got a fair trial. Most California newspapers, including the Press-Enterprise, didn't make a fuss.

However, when three heinous crimes in the early 1980s resulted in death penalty trials in Riverside County, Press-Enterprise publisher Tim Hays wanted to cover the whole shebang - including voir dire and preliminary hearings. Hays felt the public had a right to know exactly how the criminal justice system worked, and to observe that it (presumably) operated fairly.

The trio of crimes included the rape of a white high school student by an African-American man named Albert Greenwood Brown; a deadly bank robbery engineered by Christopher and Russell Harven and their gang; and the murder of twelve elderly hospital patients by a male nurse called Robert Rubane Diaz.

The first trial to draw Hays' attention was that of rapist Albert Brown, in which the judge blocked access to jury selection. Feeling the public had a right to observe voir dire - and encouraged by executive editor Norman Cherniss and senior editor Mel Opotowsky - Hays hired a lawyer to represent the Press-Enterprise. The litigator was Jim Ward - the self-styled 'world's greatest attorney.' 😊

Ward asked the trial judge to open voir dire, then approached the California appellate court, and finally petitioned the California Supreme Court.....all to no avail. After much deliberation, Ward appealed to the United States Supreme Court, a step-by-step procedure that's carefully explained in the book. Luckily, the Supreme Court elected to hear the case.

Ward's preparations and appearance before the Supreme Court - as well as the justices' thoughts and exchanges and the maneuverings of opposing parties - are described in detail. This makes for riveting reading. I was amused to see that Justice Harry Blackmun - in his private notes - described Ward as "greying & glasses" and rated Ward's presentation as a 5 (out of 10). Ward also had a jocular exchange with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in which he essentially said "I'll be back."

The Supreme Court's resulting 1984 decision was a victory for the Press-Enterprise, whose front page story read "Supreme Court Says Open Jury Selection Is To Be The Rule."

Next, multiple murderer Robert Diaz's pretrial formalities drew the Press-Enterprise's attention to preliminary hearings. These hearings - since they often lead to plea bargains - are frequently the entirety of 'a trial.' As Ward predicted, he was back at the Supreme Court in 1986 - this time to argue for open preliminary hearings. Once again all of Ward's preparations - and the thoughts and actions of the other participants - are thoroughly explicated.

This time attorney Jim Ward and his wife arrived in Washington, D.C. days ahead of the Supreme Court hearing and enjoyed "French toast at Gadsby's Tavern.....dinner at a sedate and excellent French restaurant....lunch at the University Club.....the fun, trendy, cluttered Filomena Italian Restaurant....the clock exhibit at the Renwick Gallery.....and a trip to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving." It seems like Ward was much more relaxed this time around. 🙂👌

After the Supreme Court presentations Ward prevailed once again, and the justices ruled that the public and press have a right to attend pretrial hearings. The combination of Supreme Court rulings essentially "pried open America's courtrooms, barring judges from arbitrarily shutting the public out of criminal trials and hearings."

In an epilogue, Bernstein mentions a number of criminal proceedings since the 1980s that were kept open because of the above rulings, even when the prosecution and /or defense requested closure. The public has a right to know.

The end of the book includes a long section of notes and acknowledgements, attesting to the copious research that went into this narrative.

Full disclosure: the book felt a bit padded in places. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to readers interested in the subject.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Dan Bernstein) and the publisher (University of Nebraska Press) for a copy of the book.
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Thank you to NetGalley, University of Nebraska Press and Dan Bernstein for an ARC ebook copy to review. As always, an honest review from me.

So many great aspects to this book. It definitely makes me want to stand up and do what’s right for all people. 

I really liked the concepts.

A small town newspaper demanding an open court system and winning. #LoveIt

Journalism making a positive impact on their community. #AnotherWin

Learning about the inner workings of journalism, the court system and Supreme Court case processes. #Fascinating 

You will learn so much about all of this and more, by reading Justice in Plain Sight. I think it’s a great book for people, especially students, who want to learn more about these concepts in a more example driven manner. I also liked that the transcripts from portions of the Supreme Court cases were provided. It really helped me to understand. It also gave the true feel of the atmosphere, during that era. The process may not have been flashy, but it was necessary and impactful for years to come. 

However, the material is fairly dense so reading requires good concentration. It’s not a book to read when you’re tired or distracted. Also a few times I got a little lost, but ended up figuring it out. 

Overall, I learned a lot about a concept in history that I previously knew nothing about. An informative, strong book that made me more appreciative of all the journalists in the current political climate.
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Justice in Plain Sight is about a small-town California newspaper (Press-Enterprise Co.) that was refused access to criminal court proceedings.. The newspaper ended up taking two cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s. (This occurred during a time when newspapers enjoyed "handsome profits," "were the major provider of in-depth news," and "could afford to wage battles based purely on principle...")  Both of Press-Enterprise's lawsuits were successful as the Supreme Court determined that the public has the right to attend jury selection during criminal trials as well as the right to attend pretrial hearings in criminal cases, including preliminary hearings. The cases continue to be cited, including in "court proceedings stemming from some of the most notorious crimes in recent American history..."

This was a very well-researched book that should be required reading for law students in either Constitutional Law or an elective Communications/Media Law course. I vaguely remember reading and discussing the cases, but this book provides a much more in-depth story.
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Well researched, well written and very readable.  Most enjoyable non-fiction.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, University of Nebraska Press, for this ARC.
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This was a very interesting book.  The Press Enterprise cases are not ones I recall learning about in law school, but were certainly important cases for helping establish and expand the public's right to access of court proceedings while also protecting the interests of the parties involved.  As someone with a lifelong interest in the Supreme Court and as a lawyer, I enjoyed the discussion of specific Justice's views on the cases and briefs prior to oral arguments, the discussion of the memos prepared by the law clerks arguing for or against granting cert and offering opinions on the cases, the discussion of the conferences on the cases, and the discussion of the draft decisions.  The author's access to the public papers of several retired Justices, as well as the willingness of former law clerks to share their recollections, provides valuable insight that enhances the story.

A strength of this book is that while it deals with some highly technical issues at times, it is written in a manner that makes it appealing and relatable to a general reader by focusing on the people behind the cases, in particular, the editor and executive editor of the Riverside Press Enterprise and James Ward, a business lawyer with no constitutional law experience but plenty of self-confidence, who would be given the opportunity of a lifetime, arguing a case before the Supreme Court, not once, but twice.  It also provides details about the actual criminal cases were press access was denied and which led to the lawsuits that ultimately reached the Supreme Court, giving the reader a sense of why it would be important for the public to have the opportunity to learn about what was happening behind closed doors.

I am glad I had the chance to read a review copy via NetGalley.
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"This story transports readers back to a pre-internet Golden Age when newspapers enjoyed handsome profits and were the major provider of in-depth news."
So writes Dan Bernstein, setting the scene for his book, Justice in Plain Sight, which does indeed take his reader back to a time when newspapers were not perceived to be on a fight to the bottom, with journalists being laid off or expected to be a jack-of-all trades, and executives encouraging free content from readers at the expense of professional (ie paid for) reportage and photography.

As news of the Johnston Press entering into administration hit the UK news, I was reading Bernstein's account of just one case (well, actually two) where the press has shown its importance, by making a difference and showing its value not only within its community, but to the nation as a whole.

At its centre, the book covers the legal fight conducted by a local Californian newspaper, the Press-Enterprise, to open up America's courtrooms to the press.

Bernstein, a former member of the Riverside newspaper's staff, gives a detailed account not only of the history of this fight, but also the cases that impacted on it - including the horrific rape and murder of a teenage girl, Susan Jordan, on her way to school, and the subsequent trial of her attacker.

The book charts how this one newspaper, its staff and lawyers, took on the Supreme Court twice in order to make press (and therefore public) access to court proceedings a US constitutional right, with Bernstein recreating scenes from notes, interviews and original news reports to retell the story of a legal fight that took place over the 1970s and 1980s.

This is, then, a hybrid of a book, covering crime history, legal history, and media history in one. It's a fairly recent history, in terms of its focus, but it is significant: it takes in issues covering a wider span of history, both American and English (for American law derives much from the laws of its English settlers in the 17th century, as the book discusses).

There is, at times, a tendency to get a little bogged down in the legal technicalities and formalities that some readers might find off-putting, and the criminal cases are more of an aside, whereas I got quite involved in them and would have liked to read more. However, the book is fundamentally about the law and many will enjoy learning about the intricacies of the legal fight, as well as about the newspaper characters who fought to open up the courts and enable the better reporting of cases.

Others will want to debate one of the questions raised by the book further - that of what is more important: a jury member's right to privacy, and the accused's right to a fair trial, or the right of a newspaper to cover a trial and its pre-trial procedures as fully as possible?

If you're interested in 20th century US history, whether in terms of the law, the media, or crime, this book is highly recommended, giving an insight into how much the press have had to fight to tell us the stories that matter.
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To begin with I must thank Net Galley for sending me the ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review. Since that is the only kind of review that I write it appears I got this book for nothing and will gladly fulfill my part of the agreement.

The book tells the story of a small town California newspaper in the mid 1980's and its attempts to cover the court proceedings regarding some rather significant local criminal cases. In separate instances the newspaper was refused access to court proceedings when the cases were closed by the judge to public and press attendance. The newspaper took the court to court and met with little success in California courts thus forcing the newspaper to seek redress in the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court.

I should state that I am a retired criminal defense attorney, a retired assistant public defender to be precise and for the last ten years of my career I did nothing but murder and death penalty murder cases. The issues raised in this book are very familiar to me and strike a very personal cord but I see both sides of the arguments and still really enjoyed this book. As a retired lawyer I guess I am not the average reader of a book of this nature. However, while a book about the history of two significant supreme court cases concerning freedom of the press might strike most readers as deadly dull the author has done a terrific job of keeping the subject understandable and interesting even for a layman. So what exactly is the story portrayed in this book? 

The newspaper ended up bringing two separate cases before the Supreme Court. In the first case the newspaper sought the right to be present during jury selection for the murder trial of a man accused of the brutal rape and murder of a 15 year old girl that had been on her way to school. The second case involved the murder case of a nurse accused of killing more than a dozen hospital patients under the nurse's care. In that case the newspaper sought the right to attend the preliminary hearing of the case. In both matters the judge closed the proceedings and barred both public and press attendance and the newspaper's subsequent court actions ended up going to the Supreme Court. The arguments before the Supreme Court revolved around the right of the press and public to attend and observe criminal court proceedings and thereby be assured that these proceedings were being properly administered vs the defendant's right to a fair trial that isn't tainted by press exposure and public opinion as opposed to the law and the evidence. As you might suspect these were very volatile issues in my former line of work.

Now what is really interesting and, in fact, fascinating is the amount of information the author was able to gain access to in order to report the backstory of each of these cases. By backstory I mean not only the biographical sketches of all of the major and minor participants, the lawyers preparing the cases and the clients representing the newspaper but also the justices on the court as it was comprised at the time. The author was able to acquire access to the personal notes and papers of many of the retired and deceased justices that heard these cases. A layman might not understand how incredibly rare an opportunity like this is. These notes had the results of votes taken by the justices and reasons and concerns about the issues and the opinion that would be written. For anybody interested in constitutional law or the history of the Supreme Court this material is absolutely fascinating. These discussions and votes are taken in absolute secrecy. Nobody but the justices themselves are present and the only record of what takes places is what the justices themselves write in their notes which are never made public. The author also covered the arguments made before the Court and the questions the various justices asked of the lawyers during their presentations. One justice even gave the presentations grades that he recorded in his notes and the author was able to acquire those notes and the recorded grades. This book is a treasure and a must read for any lawyer that aspires to one day appear before the Supreme Court.
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