Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Lex Alexander on how Guilford County's Judicial corps could make Billy Jones' demand for an immediate hearing on his public records lawsuit remain out of sight

...“All courts shall be open.”

N.C. Constitution, Article I, Section 18.

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.

...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...

According to News & Record editor John Robinson, 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 preemptively 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.

...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)..."