20 August 2014

Building permits, religious freedom, and the cardinal rule of legal journalism

I have said on many occasions that it is unforgivable for journalists to report on court decisions without, at the least, linking the reader to the text of the court's decision.

Here is an interesting article from Wisconsin that discusses the ruling in a case about several Amish families' failure to obtain building and sanitary permits, which would require the families to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in their homes. The Amish families believe that the installation of these electronic devices would violate their religious beliefs.

You may agree or disagree with the ultimate result, but what I really want to know is what basis the judge used to rule against the families. Unfortunately, you can't read the text of the decision without further sleuthing because the article doesn't link to it. Worse, the article doesn't even name any of the families so you wouldn't even know what parties to search for.

These articles from last December lists the names of some of the defendants: Eli Gingerich, Clemens Borntreger, Mahlon Miller Jr. and Roman Borntrager. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin's court system's webpage doesn't list any recently closed cases involving these Amish gentlemen. In fact, these four men might be a set of companion cases that haven't been decided yet.

My best guess is that the decision was in one of the Gingerich cases, but even the Wisconsin courts website doesn't have a disposition:

It is also true that these cases are at the trial level, which typically don't produce written opinions. But still, there should be some order that can be reproduced and linked for the reader.

This is the problem with legal journalism: without a link to a court opinion or order, we readers have no idea what was really decided, or even who was ruled against. This Facebook page has more information than most of the articles I've read about these cases. For shame.
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