Friday, May 18, 2012
District judge blocks public access to perjury charge against attorney
Why did District Judge Ray Dean Linder seal records of a felony perjury charge filed against an Enid attorney on Thursday?
"Because I am the district judge. And it will remain sealed until I say it shouldn’t be sealed,” Linder told the Enid News & Eagle.
Welcome to Oklahoma's 4th Judicial District, Division 1, where the public's right of access to court records doesn't exist if Linder says it doesn't.
This isn't the first time that Linder has arbitrarily closed off the judicial system to the public.
In July 2010, Linder refused to explain why a guilty plea in a first-degree murder case was accepted in his chambers instead of in the Woods County courtroom packed with family and friends of the victim.
"Wherever I am is open court,” Linder told the Enid News & Eagle at the time. "The attorneys for both sides and the defendant all agreed to do it in chambers. It became an auxiliary courtroom."
To say that his chambers had become an open court was an insult to the family and friends of the victim and to the general public. If his chambers had become an open court, why didn’t he conduct the proceeding in the Alva courtroom described as standing room only?
Now, Linder has sealed the perjury charge filed against Enid attorney Eric Edwards in Major County.
"Because in my professional opinion it deserved to be sealed," Linder told the newspaper. "Because I am the district judge, and I believe all persons are presumed innocent until their guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt by a qualified jury or judicial process."
The newspaper asked Linder what made him seal this particular case as opposed to all other felony cases. "My personal opinion, my professional opinion, my 50 years of experience as an attorney," Linder replied.
Linder wouldn't answer whether Edwards’ status as an attorney played into his decision to seal the case.
"The matter is sealed so we’re not going to talk about it — that's the reason you seal the record, is to prevent the information from being dispersed," he said.
But the U.S. Supreme Court has said judicial documents are presumptively open to the public and may be sealed only if that right of access is outweighed by a compelling need to protect higher interests. (See, e.g., Nixon v. Warner Communications. Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597, 55 L. Ed. 2d 570, 98 S. Ct. 1306 (1978))
A number of U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the Tenth Circuit, have used a balancing test to determine if court documents should be sealed. Because the public is entitled to see these records, the judge may block access only if "closure is essential to preserve higher values and is necessary to serve that interest." (See, e.g., United States v. McVeigh, 119 F. 3d 806, 812-13 (10th Cir. 1997))
However, Linder didn't cite a compelling interest that outweighs the public's right of access to court records.
The flimsy reason he provided would be justification for closing all judicial records and trials.
Access to court records assures the public that everyone is treated equally in our judicial system and that decisions aren't "based on secret bias or partiality" – as the U.S. Supreme Court said in defense of open courts.
"Closed trials breed suspicion of prejudice and arbitrariness, which in turn spawns disrespect for law," the Court said. The same can be said for court records sealed from public view.
Our state Supreme Court had voiced a similar philosophy: "The doors of our courts must never be closed for Star Chamber sessions. They must be open to the press and its prying eyes and purifying pen to report courtroom abuses, evil and corrupt influences which despoil and stagnate the flow of equal and exact justice." (Lyles v. State, 1958 OK CR 79, ¶ 15)
Linder's outrageous, arrogant stance breeds suspicion that a secret court system exists in the 4th Judicial District for those with enough good-old-boy connections to keep their names out of the public record.
How many other criminal charges has he hidden from the public for no other reason than he is the judge and he says so? Why are those criminal defendants getting preferential treatment? What other considerations are they offered that aren't available to the majority of defendants?
The 4th Judicial District's Division 1 covers Alfalfa, Dewey, Major, Woods and Woodward counties.
Linder, who is in his late seventies, is one of the longest-sitting trial judges in the state, having served on the bench since 1967, according to the Oklahoma Bar Association.
Linder's undoubtably popular in the area, having served as the radio play-by-play man for Northwestern Oklahoma State University sports for 28 years, hosted a local TV sports program from NWOSU, and as a member of NWOSU’s Sports Hall of Fame, sought-after public speaker and an admired jewelry maker.
He's an award-winning judge described by the OBA as a leader in northwestern Oklahoma and the state's judiciary.
Linder's been co-chairman for the annual Oklahoma Legislative Quail Hunt in Woods County for more than 25 years and served on the statewide planning committee for the Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor's Invitational Turkey Hunt for the past 20 years, according to the OBA in 2007.
He undoubtedly has political power and not surprisingly ran unopposed in the 2010 election.
In 2000, Linder took a hard-line approach when he disqualified the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office from prosecuting Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols. Linder said published comments that then-District Attorney Bob Macy had made were "blatant open violations of the rules of professional conduct."
"One hundred percent compliance with the rules is not only necessary, it's demanded," Linder said.
The same is true for the "rules" regarding the public's right of access to court records. One-hundred percent compliance is not only necessary to ensure that justice is afforded equitably, it's demanded.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
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.