I have to admit that I was pretty stunned when I read this article by Curtis Johnson, my counterpart at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. In Curtis’ telling, Cabell County Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson kicked him out of an evidentiary hearing in open court after Curtis (quite correctly) refused to promise not to report on the hearing’s contents.
Here’s what Ferguson said later by way of an explanation, according to the article:
“When I’ve got this hearing scheduled and people there … I just can’t stop the court proceedings for the news media,” he said.
Oh, yes you can, judge. In fact, that’s exactly what you should have done. Or do West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals’ rulings on press access no longer apply?
This isn’t the only time the issue of excluding the press from a criminal hearing has come up recently (cough, Tim Halloran, cough). So here, for the benefit of Ferguson, Halloran and any other judicial officer who want to arbitrarily boot reporters from his or her courtroom without prior warning, is a refresher on West Virginia’s open courts laws.
First, there’s Article III, Section 17 of the West Virginia Constitution:
The courts of this State shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to him, in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law; and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.
In fact, under West Virginia law, even quasi-judicial proceedings, such as disciplinary hearings for doctors and lawyers, are open to the public, thanks in no small part to the crusading efforts of late Gazette publisher W.E. “Ned” Chilton III in Daily Gazette Co.,Inc. v. Committee on Legal Ethics of the West Virginia State Bar (1984) and Daily Gazette Co., Inc. v. West Virginia Board of Medicine (1986).