In a strange development within an even stranger case, a Tennessee chancellor ruled that a tape featuring the "graphic fantasies" recorded by a former county judge should not be disclosed to the public, according to a report by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Bradley County Circuit Court Judge John Hagler resigned on Dec. 11 when news of the tape became public. One of Hagler’s former secretaries found the tape, which featured legal dictation along with a recording that was apparently alarming enough to convince the secretary the tape might relate to a violent crime, according to the report.
Soon after Hagler fired her, the secretary turned the tape over to the police, who ultimately determined the tape had no relevance to a crime, the report said.
The Times Free Press was joined by other media outlets in suing to obtain the tape under Tennessee’s open records law, but Chancellor Frank Brown denied the request.
"The tape recording had no relationship with plaintiff’s transaction of official business," Brown wrote. "The possession of an item of property by a governmental agency does not in and by itself make such an item a public record."
While the media companies involved decide whether to appeal, we at the Reporters Committee find it hard to stomach that the judge’s lurid audio production recorded onto a (presumably) taxpayer-funded cassette tape that also included the judge’s legal work does not have a "relationship" with Hagler’s "official business."
A county judge should not only be aware that his personal conduct will be held to an exceptionally high standard when it comes to public scrutiny; his expectation of privacy when using recording equipment and supplies purchased with government funds — if that is indeed what occurred in this instance, as the report suggests — should be nil.
It might be tempting for some to argue that the tape is Hagler’s business alone and that the embarrassment that lead to his resignation is punishment enough for his indiscretion. But when the integrity of their local justice system is arguably at stake, aren’t the citizens of Bradley County entitled to make that determination themselves after reviewing all of the evidence?