Journalists mourn passing of prominent media lawyer Hoemeke

Bob Hoemeke was every journalist’s favorite lawyer. He tried to get information into the newspaper instead of keeping out.

Hoemeke, the most prominent media lawyer in Missouri during the last decades of the last century, died Nov. 28 of the

effects of Parkinson’s disease. He was 77.

Journalists, in general, don’t like lawyers. They roll their eyes and ridicule their editor for cowardice when the editor picks up the phone to call in the outside legal counsel to read over a story before publication.

The journalists have a good reason. Many lawyers think their main job is to play it safe, take out anything that is borderline and might get the newspaper in trouble. Hoemeke, an affable man with a good sense of humor, took a different approach. He wanted to find a way to get the information into the newspaper. For that reason, for decades, the newsroom of the Post-Dispatch welcomed Hoemeke’s arrival late on a Friday night to make sure the investigative piece for the Sunday paper was ready to go.

Retired Post-Dispatch editor Laszlo Domjan recalled spending many late-evening hours at the city desk going over investigative stories word by word with Hoemeke to spot legal pitfalls. His advice doubtless prevented many potential lawsuits. At times, Domjan asked Hoemeke for the legal reasons behind his suggestion for a particular change in wording.

“Bob would respond: ‘It’s not that it’s better legally. It just reads better,’ ” Domjan recalled. “And he was invariably right. He had a fine ear for the language and was a great editor.”

More importantly, Hoemeke had a loyal following among journalists because he “made clear his philosophy was always to try to keep as much information in a story as possible, not how much he could keep from being reported,” Domjan said. “He was a true champion of the public’s right to know.”

Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, whose freewheeling pen sometimes left him on the verge of legal trouble, recalled in the Post-Dispatch that Hoemeke frequently saved him.

“It always seemed unfair to the lawyers on the other side,” McClellan said, “because I had Atticus Finch on my side.”

Joseph Martineau, one of Hoemeke’s partners at Lewis, Rice & Fingersh, remembered Hoemeke telling him, “Reporters, editors and publishers should decide what to publish, not a lawyer. The lawyer’s job is to counsel them so they do so in a lawful fashion that does not unfairly and inaccurately tarnish reputation.”

Assessing Hoemeke’s career, Martineau said: “I would say that Bob was the most influential media lawyer in Missouri through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. He was instrumental in the development of law in Missouri law as it affects the media, and the manner in which it keeps the public informed.”

The cases that Hoemeke argued “form much of the precedent on libel and First Amendment law in the state of Missouri.”

One of Hoemeke’s biggest legal accomplishments was convincing the Missouri Supreme Court that the Sunshine Law providing for openness in government should be interpreted liberally to open meetings and documents rather than keep them secret.

He won that victory representing the Post-Dispatch in Cohen v. Mayor Poelker, a 1975 case that was the first one where the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the Sunshine Law. St. Louis’ powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment argued that it was not a “governmental body,” but the court disagreed. It said the Sunshine Law provisions “speak loudly and clearly for the General Assembly that its intent in enacting the Sunshine Law … was that all meetings of members of public governmental bodies … at which the peoples’ business is considered must be open to the people and not conducted in secrecy, and also that the records of the body and the votes of its members must be open.”

Hoemeke had a role in several important national cases, including the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 when the Post-Dispatch became the third newspaper in the country to obtain copies of the secret history of the Vietnam War.

Richard Dudman, the retired Washington bureau chief of the Post-Dispatch, recalled in an email calling Izzy Stone, the liberal muckraker, to try to get the Post-Dispatch a copy of the Pentagon
Papers. The call led to instructions to send a reporter to Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard University, and to wait for a call at a phone booth. Dudman sent Tom Ottenad, the paper’s political reporter. Ottenad got the call and instructions to go to another phone booth and then to a porch where copies of some of the documents were contained under a stack of newspapers. Ottenad rushed to St. Louis to put together a story.

The Nixon administration reacted as it had with the New York Times and Washington Post. It went to court to stop the publication of the documents. Hoemeke represented the newspaper. The eventual outcome was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the court orders stopping publication were unconstitutional prior restraints on press freedom.

Several decades later, Hoemeke was involved with other media lawyers in the effort to open the sealed deposition of President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case.

Hoemeke also was active in Illinois, where he convinced the Illinois Supreme Court in 1984 to overturn a $1 million libel verdict against the Belleville News-Democrat for an editorial accusing Jerry Costello of lying in his campaign promises. Costello, then chairman of the St. Clair County Board, went on to get elected to Congress.

One of Hoemeke’s earliest victories was a humorous but important 1963 case that seems very modern by today’s media standards. In 1956, the Post-Dispatch ran a funny story about police in Times Beach rounding up “Towhead Pete’s Gang,” which supposedly had broken into the Times Beach, Mo., home of Pacific lawyer Joseph H. Langworthy. The court, obviously amused, reprinted the four-paragraph story in its opinion:

“ ‘Towhead Pete’ and his gang were rounded up today by county detectives at the personal direction of Superintendent of Police Albert E. DuBois, who found himself on a ‘hot spot.’ “Joseph H. Langworthy, an attorney of 512 Ivy Avenue, Times Beach, reported someone had pushed open a window at his home and had taken three pieces of Swiss cheese, a piece of cake, some jello and $20. He wanted something done about it and told police so in emphatic terms. “The gang of ‘Towhead Pete’ was rounded up. It consists of five boys – 12, 10, 6, 5 and 2 years old – and four girls, 13, 8, 6 and 4 years. They admitted getting into the house, but insisted they found only 28 cents and not $20.

“After a lecture at police headquarters, they were turned over to juvenile authorities for another lecture, that is, all except the 2-year-old, who was in diapers and police said they ‘couldn’t pin anything on him, anyway.’”

Langworthy claimed that there was no child named Pete and that there was no baby in diapers. Hoemeke persuaded the Missouri Supreme Court that holding a person up to ridicule and making a few mistakes in the process didn’t amount to a libel case.