Retiring court spokesman bridged news, the law

8/24/2013

By STEVE FRY

By STEVE FRY

The Topeka Capital-Journal

TOPEKA (AP) — Whenever Kansas Supreme Court spokesman Ron Keefover read or heard the words "legal technicality" in a news story, he fired off a firm letter to the journalist.

It was part of the longtime court spokesman's campaign to erase "legal technicality" from news stories. It is a shorthand phrase to explain why a court overturned a defendant's conviction in a high-profile case.

"It's just lazy or sloppy reporting," Keefover said of the phrase. "It wouldn't take much time to do research or ask someone" why a conviction was overturned.

"They are thrown out on provisions of the United States and Kansas Constitutions," Keefover said, and that is the reason almost 100 percent of the time.

Keefover recently notified Supreme Court justices he was retiring on Sept. 13 after 32 years as the court's public information officer.

In the letter to reporters, Keefover would refer the reporter to the amendments in the Bill of Rights assembled by Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice David Prager, a former Shawnee County District Court judge.

"I would point out the particular 'technicalities' involved were numbers four and six, and that the 'technicality' that makes your job possible is number one on the list!" the letter said.

The 4th Amendment deals with searches and seizures, the 6th targets due process rights, including right to a speedy trial, and the 1st Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and a free press.

When Keefover started as court spokesman in 1981, he mailed the letter about twice a year. The last time he sent it was in May 2012 to a northeast Kansas newspaper, which said the defendant got off "scot-free" in a slaying case because of a technicality, Keefover said.

Keefover has been the court's first and only public information officer for 32 years, starting in March 1981.

Before that, he was a reporter at The Topeka Capital-Journal for 15 years, primarily covering courthouse news and the police beat.

At the Supreme Court, a chunk of Keefover's time has been spent educating reporters about the law and legal jargon. But at the same time, Keefover has taught the court's seven justices about the news business in his efforts to bridge the gap between the courts and news media.

"The courts in so many cases have so little information about what it is the media does, what they need, how they do it and the fact they have deadlines," Keefover said.

"I've seen my role up here as much about educating judges about journalists as I have journalists about judges," Keefover said.

Judges at all levels want to teach the public about they do, he said.

"Civic education is high on the priority list of the Kansas Supreme Court and judges across the state," Keefover said. "This is who we are and what we do."

During Keefover's tenure, innovations emerged to make the court more transparent, as well as understandable to news consumers.

When Keefover was first hired, one of the first goals of the Supreme Court was for Keefover to summarize a court decision in understandable English.

Keefover suggested releasing court decisions on Friday when journalists were working, not Saturday when few reporters were writing. Multiple copies of the decisions were issued, rather than just one of each ruling as had been done.

"The court bought into the idea of transparency," Keefover said.

In the summary of the decisions released by the Supreme Court, the "why" has to be explained, Keefover said.

"The 'why' can be as important, if not more important, than the result" announced in the case, Keefover said.

When it comes to court rulings, judges and the news media have the same goal at the end of the day.

"Journalists want the same thing that judges want: fair, accurate and timely coverage of court rulings," Keefover said.

"The Kansas court system is one of the best in the country," Keefover said. "The Shawnee County bench is top notch."

Other innovations during the Keefover years were:

* Giving reporters summaries of cases about to appear before the court.

* Live and archived broadcast of audio, then later audio and video, of Supreme Court hearings.

* Keefover wrote the rules when cameras were allowed into Kansas courtrooms.

* Keefover has acted as media liaison to assist district judges, particularly in smaller counties, during high-profile trials.

*Adding appeals court opinions to the website at kscourts.org.

* Presenting training for judges and journalists and similar outreach programs designed to bridge the gap between the courts and the media.

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