An Open Letter to Mason District Court Judge Meadows

Judge Meadows resists 1st Amendment, substitutes ‘policy’ for Constitution:

We all want to believe our neighbors, our community, appreciates where the boundaries of the law lie, to grasp the importance of protection for minority  viewpoints and unpopular speech including the full exercise of 1st Amendment guarantees that allow for recording/photography in public places or of public information/documents. Unfortunately too many of the great ‘unwashed’ are ignorant or confused by the nuances of the law. But we have law enforcement officers trained in such matters, yes?–umm, maybe not.

A lot of cops pull stuff out of their @ss they claim is the law because they’re poorly trained and ignorant of what they’re supposed to enforce–THE LAW. The typical policeman or policewoman is trained first to CONTROL the situation/person and understanding the law they enforce comes in a distant 2nd…or worse. The most commonly committed felony in America today is perjury, on the witness stand (or in their reports) by cops–under oath! But that’s why we have lawyers, right?

If you can even afford an attorney, you’ll soon realize there are brighter and lesser lights in the universe–a LOT of the latter. In fact, more and more litigants, both civil and criminal, are representing themselves (who can afford an attorney today?) despite the old sop about a man who represents himself. Lawyers are understandably fond of that aphorism. Statistics show pro se litigants (without distinguishing between civil and criminal) have a higher success ratio than those represented by attorneys! That demands pause for thought about what this means. Answers aren’t clear, but it certainly creates a lot of questions. One conclusion is having an attorney is worse than no attorney at all, at least statistically.

If the doctor diagnosed you with a potentially terminal form of cancer and offered you a pill to cure it–an expensive pill–but you found those taking it had a lower survival rate than those who didn’t, would you buy the pill?

OK, so lawyers may be an illusory pacifier, but not to worry, after all–we have JUDGES. If anybody should know the law, it’s them, yes?? Before you breathe a sigh of relief, check out your local courthouse–listen to others that have–read this review and weep without wondering for  whom the bell tolls. Incredulously, too many judges don’t get it either…including one local district court judge. Read on for the grim facts if you expect more from your elected judicial officials.

A trip to Mason County District Court was brought on by an invitation from  recent Port of Shelton Commissioner Jack Miles who, it turned out, had a hearing scheduled @ 1:30pm on Monday, 3-2-12 for a stay of execution from his drunk driving conviction due to it being under appeal. A duly faxed request to utilize photojournalism to cover this story was transmitted and approved by Judge Meadows. Unfortunately, one of the guards hadn’t gotten the word and some last minute confusion resulted.

While in the courtroom, an elderly previous Port of Shelton Commissioner was seen in shackles and jail garb…no, it wasn’t Jay Hupp, but hope springs eternal. Recognizing that all such proceedings, court files, jail rosters, and charges are PUBLIC for an undeniably sound reason, efforts were made to discover the details of why the man was in custody. The resistance by court staff and the judge herself to that inquiry BECAME the story. You can listen to a small excerpt of the runaround received trying to access this public information and the efforts to chill the inquiry/reporting through the audio link at the end of this article…an audio made in a public area where no expectation of privacy existed, many were present to overhear the conversation, and it involved law enforcement of the highest order–the judge herself.

Judge Meadows grants Jack Miles a stay of execution w/o bias:

Before continuing, it must be reported that Judge Meadows treated Jack Miles fairly, impartially, and without apparent bias either at this hearing or during the earlier sentencing hearing. Meadows is a reasonably honest judge (though not perfect) and genuinely tries to insure defendants receive a fair trial while she simultaneously tries to protect the community she is a part of. Still, her reliance on the limited authority of her office to  resolve all impasses is a mistake–especially when based on her own misapprehensions about where the legal boundaries lie. Too often she has overstepped those boundaries presuming her long held authority gives her license. Judge Meadows’ efforts to do her job well (if not always her actual performance) deserves respect while conceding she remains human and subject to the vicissitudes of that condition. Jack alleges he has seen a pattern of discrimination in sentencing based on gender in her court. This claim in unconfirmed at this point and no basis is at hand to prove or disprove it. Judicial error does not necessarily imply bias. It may simply implicate being human.

The Mason County District Court clerks began by insisting this reporter complete a written request for the court file related to the ex-port commissioner seen in the courtroom in shackles. It was asserted his full (including middle) name and birth date or case # must be supplied. This was at variance with years of experience obtaining a case # by simply calling on the phone and giving the party’s first and last name. The clerk insisted. A trip to the superior court clerk’s office and its administrator yielded similar results when they called downstairs to inquire about getting the case #.

Not wanting to leave the courthouse in order to avoid re-entry through the security screening devices/process, the idea of using a cell phone to contact the county jail occurred. Sgt.  Sue LaMont was just getting off her shift, so she was no help. But a courtroom security guard did try to help. He called the jail and inquired as to the charges leveled against the man in question. Though told the jail roster would normally also supply the inmate’s date of birth along with the charges, only the charges were sought by the guard. As soon as he revealed they were Assault IV – Domestic Violence, a court clerk stepped into the hallway to chide him for giving out this information. The guard rightly pointed out it was public information.

Realizing this was insufficient to satisfy the clerk’s extraordinary demands in this instance, and raising suspicion some favoritism was at work, a walk next door to the jail produced the key to unlocking access to the court file, the case #. After writing this # on a discarded paper cup, a return to the clerk’s office eventually produced the coveted court file including the police report and comments made to the arresting officer by family members. It also produced an irritated Judge Meadows who objected to the reporter photographing the file.

Judge Meadows initially argued the 1st Amendment gave no license to photograph public information but could cite no countervailing authority herself. After a brief pause for thought, she invoked the specter of interfering with a suspect’s right to a ‘fair trial’. Knowing this was likely near and dear to the reporter’s heart/belief, she successfully defused the difference of opinion–for the moment.

After considerable afterthought, the following editorial conclusion was reached on the matter discussed with Judge Meadows:

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution each guarantee a criminal accused the right to a public trial. Cohen v. Everett City Council, 85 Wn.2d 385, 387, 535 P.2d 801 (1975). In addition, article I, section 10 of the Washington Constitution states that [j]ustice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay. This provision provides the public and press a right to open and accessible court proceedings. Seattle Times Co. v. Ishikawa, 97 Wn.2d 30, 36, 640 P.2d 716 (1982).

The courts are not subject to Washington State’s Public Records Act. The requirement for public access to their records precedes that voters’ initiative–a requirement as old as this nation. The need for transparency and immediacy in court files is much more pronounced than the need for other public documents because the alternative is ‘justice’ behind closed doors–tantamount to a denial of a ‘fair trial’.

Our courts do not ‘own’ any copyright or exclusive interest in the case files stored in their facilities. They are merely a repository for safe keeping. The files properly belong to ALL citizens without qualification for the same reason we require all proceedings and trials to be public–to preserve, not to thwart, and guarantee the right to a ‘fair trial’ via the exposure to public inquiry/attendance. To interfere with such inquiry or access by any means is to chill the right to transparency and a public trial/proceeding. Even our children are not criminally tried behind closed doors.

Were the cause of a ‘fair trial’ genuinely considered without resorting to personal biases against this publication or reporter, it would be recognized that parading suspects through the courthouse in shackles and jail clothes is more likely to instill prejudice from onlookers than a full reporting of the alleged offense(s). Worse yet, the parading of our children on the sidewalk in leg, waist, and wrist shackles in orange jumpsuits between our juvenile detention center and the county courthouse is humiliating and prejudicial.

Judge Meadows’ argument about what ‘legitimate’ press coverage includes when reporting alleged crimes is mistaken. One routinely reads accounts from every major news reporting agency of indictments and criminal charges long before any trial has occurred. Unlike Canada, this country does not typically have judicial gag orders imposed on the press or photojournalists. Our 1st Amendment prohibits such judicial excess, as does our right to public hearings/trial–a right that protects us from the kind of excess/abuse that occurs more routinely in secret or behind closed doors. e.g. The Bush administration’s secret prisons and extraordinary renditions for the purpose of conducting torture out of the public view.

A judge of long standing may be tempted to substitute judicial fiat for community cooperation, but that slippery slope eventually leads to totalitarianism. In a true democracy in a nation of laws, those laws are a process done WITH  the community rather than TO the community–an important distinction lost, in this instance, on Judge Meadows.

While Meadows’ instincts are welcomes, her execution is not. The sound judgement of our founding fathers in making the 1st Amendment the foremost of our Constitutional protections is based on principles not subject to the second guessing of our local district court magistrate. There is no statute, common law, or precedent supporting the notion that public information/records cannot be photographed. No disruption of the court clerk’s office took place and the total file size was approximately 6-7 pages. There were no lines or people waiting. Judge Meadows’ invocation of ‘fair trial’ principles was an ill considered afterthought revealing disapproval of this publication’s style and content–effectively a ‘prior restraint’ if you will.

Victoria Meadows is a decent, politically popular, well intentioned judge. This report intends no disrespect to her personally or professionally. It is intended to educate the public, and possibly herself, to the broad implications of our Constitution and its 1st Amendment. There is much room for shared values and respect within its ambit.

Click HERE to hear Audio of Reporter remonstrating with Judge Meadows to respect the 1st Amendment and her oath of office.

Click HERE to see the court file in contention and decide in your own mind if Judge Meadows is justified in 2nd guessing our founding fathers’ wisdom in drafting the 1st Amendment. Is transparency in government and our courts consistent with the right to a ‘fair trial’? Your comments are welcome.

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