Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Judge threatens to arrest TV journalists, refuses to hear legal arguments against his ban on cameras in courthouse hallway

Judge Paul Woodward wouldn't hear legal arguments on Tuesday against his order banning TV cameras in the same courthouse hallway as a criminal hearing involving an Oklahoma County judge and her husband.

Woodward threatened to hold TV crews in contempt and confiscate cameras if he sees them again in the hallway outside the courtroom, KFOR and KOKH Fox 25 reported.

Woodward's order relies upon a judicial canon no longer in effect.

A Garfield County judge, Woodward was assigned the case after Oklahoma County judges recused themselves. Oklahoma County Judge Tammy Bass-LeSure and her husband are charged with perjury and making a fraudulent claim against the state for taking payments for children they adopted but who don't live with them.

On Wednesday, Woodward ruled against Bass-LeSure's motion to have District Attorney David Prater removed from the case.

In May, Woodward issued the order banning TV news cameras from the hallway near the courtroom.

Local TV stations hired media attorney Robert Nelon to fight the order.

But on Wednesday, Woodward refused to hear Nelon's arguments. (Ironically, when Woodward announced his candidacy for a district judgeship a year ago, he said, "You want someone you feel like you have a fair chance with, who’ll listen to both sides.")

Nelon said Woodward had apparently "only skimmed the motion and hadn't fully read it."

"He just told us to get out of the courthouse," Nelon said.

He believes Woodward's order is "blatantly unconstitutional."

"The judge has the right under the law to control access in terms of a camera inside the courtroom," Nelon told KOCO and KFOR. "And he can probably tell you not to shoot [video] through the window of the courtroom.

"But I don't think the judge has the constitutional power to tell you that you can't be in a public place," said Nelon.

Woodward cited a judicial canon that had been in effect since 1997. The canon required the trial judge's permission first before cameras could be used in the courtroom. The canon did not require a judge's permission for news cameras to be used in courthouse hallways.

Also, the judicial canon hasn't been in effect since April 15. The state Supreme Court in December adopted a new Code of Judicial Conduct that makes no mention of cameras in courtrooms.

The change came at the recommendation of the Oklahoma Bar Association.

An OBA committee "discussed this issue at length but eventually decided that such rules did not belong in a Code of Judicial Conduct. These rules, if they are to be kept, would be better placed in the Rules for the District Courts or some other set of rules," according to the final report presented to the OBA membership for approval in November.

An attorney for the Oklahoma Press Association said judges should not construe the deletion of the regulations "as a direction that cameras in the courtroom are not allowed."

"Judges will hereafter have to decide on their own whether to allow cameras in the courtroom and, if so, will have to create their own ad hoc guidelines," wrote Michael Minnis.

Prior to formally opposing Woodward's order, the stations tried to meet with the presiding judge but got no response, reported FOX 25.

The station also reported that county commissioners are divided over whether they have the authority to require the judge to allow cameras in the courthouse hallway. Commissioner Brian Maughan said he would seek an opinion from Prater on the issue.

For now, Nelon points out, Woodward's order prohibits TV crews from a public area of the courthouse while allowing print journalists to "roam freely, to interview people, to stand where they want to, but the electronic media can't do the same thing."

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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