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Court public information officers get their due.

"This is fulfilling the vision of what this democracy should be," Chief Justice Fred Lewis said in his opening remarks at the Florida Court Public Information Officers' recent award ceremony in Orlando. Lewis, referring to the winners, added that without hard work and a team effort, "that vision will disappear."

Mum was certainly not the word as FCPIO President Craig Waters awarded four members the national Conference of Court Public Information Officers' highest honor during its meeting at The Florida Bar's Annual Convention.

The four winners worked on two of Florida's highest-profile cases--one involving the death of socialite Anna Nicole Smith and the other, convicted murderer John Couey.

Waters said the Anna Nicole Smith case had all the elements that tabloids and 24-hour news networks dream of.

"As a result, they descended in hordes comparable to the 2000 election cases." The Anna Nicole Smith case, which Waters called "the most watched and indescribable news story of the past 12 months," involved two courts--one trial, one appellate--in close proximity and they had to work together, basically handing press from one to the other.

Issues in this state tend to seep into other jurisdictions, Waters said, which was the case with all winners this year. The winner at the trial-level was Christopher Stotz of the 17th Judicial Circuit, and the winner at the appellate level was Glen Rubin of the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Rubin and Stotz worked together on the Anna Nicole Smith case.

Large groups of media outside a courthouse can be disruptive in unimaginable ways, said Waters, who handled the throng at the Florida Supreme Court during the 2000 election dispute.

"They can bring you to a halt if they're not handled properly, and they can make you look foolish if you don't know how to treat them," Waters said.

"I noticed ... that the press treated these courts well," Waters said, noting that is a sign of a very successful court public information officer doing the work he or she should do.

"The other case, which, to some degree, was knocked out of circulation by the Anna Nicole Smith case--but remained, nevertheless, a nationwide news story--involved two very, very different circuits and a change of venue," Waters said.

The Couey case began in a rural North Central Florida county but a change of venue took the case to Florida's largest county. Cases involving two counties, Waters said--especially from such demographically different regions--are truly remarkable.

Debbie C. Thomas, public information officer from the Fifth Judicial Circuit where the crime was committed, and Eunice Sigler, the director of the Office of Government Liaison and Public Relations for the 11th Judicial Circuit where the case was tried, received CCPIO awards along with Stotz and Rubin.

"We were dealing with PIOs who had very different experiences with the press," Waters said, one accustomed to rural media in North Central Florida, and one accustomed to metropolitan media in South Florida.

The amazing thing, Waters said, is that two PIOs from such disparate backgrounds came together, pulled off something very difficult, and left with the media praising them for a job well done. Waters said that Siegler and Thomas did a wonderful job "working with the media in a brilliant, brilliant manner together.

"By any standard, whenever the press believes they have been treated fairly, they will treat you fairly, and that speaks volumes," Waters said.

Waters was joined in praising the PIOs' joint efforts by Judge Richard A. Howard of the Fifth Circuit and Chief Judge Joseph P. Farina of the 11th Circuit, who spoke on behalf of Siegler and Thomas.

"Both the messenger and the recipient help breed success as far as public confidence in our court system is concerned," Farina said. "Often, you are our face, our voice, and our credibility," he said of the winners.

In an unexpected turn of events, Waters also won an award from FCPIO. The ceremony came to a close with Ron Stuart, the public information officer in the Sixth Judicial Circuit and president-elect of FCPIO, recognizing Waters' lifetime achievement and "tireless advancement of the profession and committed leadership in the creation of FCPIO," with a plaque of his own.

Waters said the award criteria are not judged by FCPIO members--or anyone in the state of Florida--but court public information officers from other states, which gives the judges a national perspective when deciding winners.

"These are truly unique awards," said Waters.

The judges were Beth S. Riggert, communications counsel, Supreme Court of Missouri; Sally W. Rankin, court information officer, Maryland Judiciary; and Thomas B. Darr, deputy court administrator, Administrative Office of the Courts in Mechanicsburg, Penn. Both Rankin and Darr are past presidents of the Conference of Court Public Information Officers, Waters said.

By Theresa E. Davis

Assistant Editor
COPYRIGHT 2007 Florida Bar
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Davis, Theresa E.
Publication:Florida Bar News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 15, 2007
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