Friday, February 03, 2006

Into the federal courthouse to cover a trial

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In a few hours, after reading another 50 or so pages of legal documents, I'll be scribbling notes in a pretrial hearing, not in the historic building shown here, but on the 13th floor of the Sacramento Federal Courthouse in downtown Sacramento.

Yes, the 13th floor. Hmmm...

The last time I covered a federal case was the now-famous Petaluma controlled-growth trial when the city's slow-growth policies were under legal attack by developers.

And that trial was at the San Francisco courthouse, but things were just a bit different then for a journalist covering a trial.

Today I'll be equipped with a cell phone (so I can call my editor the second the hearing is over and let him know what's up), a digital voice recorder (for exact quotes from the attorneys), and as soon as the hearing done, I'll sprint home to write the story and file it electronically via email. If I wanted to, I could carry my computer to the court, and find a downtown Wi-Fi hot spot and send my story in.

In 1976 (yup, 30 years ago), I left the San Francisco federal courtroom to run downstairs to a bank of 10 pay phones (for about 50 reporters, all trying to file stories!) to make a collect call to my newspaper (the Petaluma Argus-Courier) so I could dictate a story to an editor back in Petaluma.

And those legal documents I'm reading (or should be reading instead of blogging)?

In the Petaluma case, I had to go to the federal courthouse and pay 10 cents per page to have them photocopied. And the clerks were really sooooooo happy to do it, too. I still remember the looks on their faces.

For today's case, I downloaded a blizzard of PDF files directly to my computer, along with past news stories, photos of the defendants, photos of the attorneys, a Mapquest document to show me where to park and even instructions on how to find the courtroom in which the hearing will take place.

But I've dawdled. It's almost time to head to the 13th floor and there's still those 50 pages to read.

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