Blind judge bars public, press
ALABAMA–A circuit court judge in Bessemer has issued a blanket order barring the public from attending certain proceedings in his courtroom and prohibiting them from calling his staff with inquiries about the status of cases pending before him, prompting two newspapers to publish editorials in late August asking the state Judicial Inquiry Commission to review the order if the judge declines to rescind it.
Quoting an internal memorandum, the Birmingham News reported that state Circuit Court Judge Tony Cothren, who was appointed by the governor in April and presides over domestic relations cases, has closed his courtroom for the past three months because “family problems,” particularly allegations of adultery and child custody matters, “should be private.” The judge indicated that litigants appearing before him have expressed discomfort with “airing their dirty laundry” in open court.
Cothren, who is the first blind judicial appointee in the state, also expressed concern that members of the audience could take advantage of his blindness by coaching witnesses while they are testifying.
Cothren added that he and his staff are already working overtime in an attempt to clear up a backlog of cases, and that they are simply too busy to respond to telephone calls to his chambers. The judge stated that questions about cases are more appropriately handled by the court clerk’s office.
In addition to editorials in the Birmingham News and Montgomery Advertiser condemning the closure order, a protest was filed by the Radio-Television News Directors Association asking Cothren to reconsider his decision.
According to the state rules of civil procedure, all trials are presumptively open except where a statute dictates otherwise, such as in juvenile cases. In 1987, the Alabama Supreme Court held that judges have discretion to close their courtrooms upon a showing of “good cause.”