“All courts shall be open.”
I’ve spent much of the last 30 years trying to educate North Carolina public officials about their duties and responsibilities under the state’s open-records and open-meetings laws. Indeed, had I charged taxpayers by the hour, I could be living someplace tropical right now with somebody bringing me tall, red rum drinks with little umbrellas in them about every 45 minutes or so.
And I understand why this is: Training people takes time and money, two things state and local governments tend not to have a lot of. It’s frustrating, of course, but in general it’s not beyond comprehension.
Where it is beyond comprehension is judges, who should be literally the last people on the state payroll to make a mistake regarding open government. And yet that was the case we had today when Superior Court Judge Patrice Hinnant, who is hearing a civil case involving the Greensboro landfill, tried to do so in chambers — that is, in private, without reporters or the general public allowed to attend.
(Note that my incredulity has nothing to do with the merits of the lawsuit; more broadly, I haven’t the foggiest what the best thing for the city to do with its garbage would be. All that is beside the point here.)
According to News & Record editor John Robinson (linked above), the judge decided that “there was sufficient public interest” to hold the hearing in open court. In point of fact, according to the state Constitution, public interest isn’t a standard for deciding whether a civil proceeding will be public or not. Court proceedings are presumptively public. There are a few well-defined exceptions, in the statutes, none of which applied here. Yet Hinnant apparently intended to break the law until a News & Record attorney attempted to request a hearing on whether or not the proceeding should be open.
At least the News & Record can afford the attorney, kind of. You and I? Probably not so much.
What’s particularly puzzling (and, by “puzzling,” I mean “infuriating”) about Judge Hinnant’s position is the implication that she somehow has some objective way of gauging the amount of public interest, as well as some standard for how much public interest justifies opening a hearing (or how little public interest justifies closing it).
I commented on this at JR’s blog. His response was a model of decorum and diplomacy, but I suspect that merely reflects the fact that he and the N&R will have to live with Judge Hinnant for a while. (Would it be irresponsible to speculate that she was just acting out because she was miffed that the paper tried to reach her at home last night? Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to. Petty judges are hardly unheard-of.) But you and I do not have to eat that sh– um, I mean, the rest of us are not similarly constrained, and after 30 years I’ve had enough. Please contact your state representative and ask him/her to file articles of impeachment against Judge Hinnant immediately (Update: Yes, I have). Her behavior today constitutes prima facie evidence that she is unfit for office.
UPDATE: A soon-to-be-lawyer friend suggests that filing a complaint with the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission might actually get farther than seeking impeachment, not that either is actually going anywhere. So I’ll do that, too, and recommend that you do the same. Note that complaints must be snailmailed or faxed.