A baby step for transparency

Published 9:54 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A substitute judge finally made a ruling on Monday in line with what most folks already believed to be the case: It was wrong for the press to have been excluded from a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court trial of Delegate Richard Morris in December.

We are pleased that Judge Louis Lerner from Hampton came to a sensible conclusion in the case, which was brought by the Daily Press, the Virginian-Pilot and the Smithfield Times, though we are befuddled about why it took so long for the case to come to trial and about the judge’s disdain for the media, which was apparent from his comments to a lawyer representing the media outlets.

In fact, Judge Lerner’s ruling on the matter of the closure failed to address the foundational principle of the public’s right to know about what transpires in a courtroom that has been allowed to be open to other members of the public.

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Instead, the judge ruled simply that now-retired Judge Robert Brewbaker had erred in failing to provide adequate notice that he intended to exclude the media from the trial, having failed to provide a written finding a day in advance of the hearing.

In practice, the ruling by Judge Lerner means that media outlets will be able to purchase a transcript of the trial on 14 counts of various crimes stemming from alleged abuse of Morris’ wife and an adolescent child in the home.

That means newspapers and television stations will be able to compare the courtroom transcript against a press release in which Morris cherry-picked statements from trial to make a public case of his innocence. In closed court, 13 of the 14 charges were dismissed or not prosecuted. A grand jury later certified the remaining charge and also renewed one of the prior charges for trial.

In the end, we all seek the truth in this matter, and a courtroom transcript will be useful in helping the public understand the court’s and lawyer’s decisions. That’s certainly a positive development.

However, the press and the commonwealth would have been better served by a broader ruling on the matter of general public access.

Recognizing that there was a minor whose reputation and identity the court sought to protect, the fact that an elected public official was at the center of these charges should have called for a higher level of transparency than might otherwise have prevailed in such a case.

There were other ways the court could have protected the child without closing the entire hearing. Perhaps the media could have been excluded from only the parts of the trial in which the minor testified, for instance.

And finally, Judge Lerner’s ruling did not even address the fact that the portion of law Brewbaker cited in his closure of the courtroom is designed to govern the use of photography or television broadcast equipment in a courtroom. It doesn’t address or govern the simple presence of reporters.

As is so often the case in judicial matters, the ruling was not a complete win for anybody. The partial win for transparency is sufficient in this case. Unfortunately the door remains open for similar shenanigans in the future.

Consider this a baby step for transparency.