Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Judge grants public access to criminal case filed against an Enid attorney
Grady County District Judge Richard Van Dyck on Tuesday granted the Enid News & Eagle's request to unseal court records of a felony perjury charge filed and later dismissed against Enid attorney Eric Edwards.
"The court finds the newspaper has a First Amendment right to publish the news as it finds it," Van Dyck said. "The public needs to know what its elected officials are up to. The public has a right to know."
Van Dyck also rejected requests by Edwards' attorney, Stephen Jones, to close Tuesday's hearing to the public, the Enid News & Eagle reported.
The newspaper did not receive the case records from the Major County court clerk Tuesday afternoon because Van Dyck’s order unsealing it had not been received.
District Judge Ray Dean Linder had sealed the case the day the charge was filed in May.
The 71-year-old judge gave no reason other than he was the judge in the case and "because in my professional opinion it deserved to be sealed." Linder also told the newspaper at the time that the case would "remain sealed until I say it shouldn't be sealed."
The Oklahoma Supreme Court reassigned the case from Linder to Van Dyck in June. Major County District Attorney Hollis Thorp also recused his office from the matter, so prosecution was assigned to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.
Van Dyck dismissed the charge against Edwards in July after Prater said the case lacked merit.
The Enid News & Eagle filed motions to intervene in the case for the purpose of filing a motion to unseal the case record and to lift Linder's order sealing the case.
News & Eagle Publisher Jeff Funk raised serious questions about why Linder had become involved in the case and said the manner in which the case was sealed gave the impression of partiality and undue secrecy.
"It looks like preferential treatment for Edwards, an attorney, to have a criminal charge against him kept confidential even though charges against all other adults are handled in open court," Funk said. "Our objection is to the secrecy of this case, and we want the court to declare this secrecy, this special treatment, unlawful and wrong."
Van Dyck said he was "very aware and very mindful of any appearance of impropriety." He also said the public's interest in knowing the truth was greater than the need to keep the records sealed, which would only "heighten suspicions," the newspaper reported.
Prater said he had no objection to the newspaper intervening. "It does appear this case should be unsealed," he told Van Dyck.
After Van Dyck's decision, Funk said he hopes "other judges take note of this ruling."
"The court system was designed to serve the public, all Oklahomans, and criminal cases need to remain open to the public," Funk said. "When cases are improperly closed, it gives the appearance of favoritism or improper treatment. With openness, Oklahomans can have greater confidence in their court system."
Kudos to Funk for taking on this fight and to Van Dyck for affirming the public's right to know what goes on in its courts.
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.