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Judge's injunction against newspaper struck down

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   ARKANSAS   ·   Prior Restraints   ·   Feb. 22, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   ARKANSAS   ·   Prior Restraints   ·   Feb. 22, 2006

Judge’s injunction against newspaper struck down

  • A circuit judge’s year-old restraining order barring a newspaper from reporting testimony made in open court about the judge’s alleged misconduct is unconstitutional, the state’s highest court ruled.

Feb. 22, 2006  ·   An Arkansas county circuit court judge’s restraining order prohibiting The Helena Daily World from publishing testimony alleging the judge’s misconduct improperly chilled the newspaper’s First Amendment rights, the state’s high court ruled Thursday.

Phillips County Circuit Judge L.T. Simes II failed to prove that restraining the Daily World’s speech was needed to prevent a clear and imminent threat to the fair administration of justice on Jan. 6, 2005, when he ordered the parties, their attorneys, the Daily World, and all persons present at the open hearing not to communicate “in any fashion whatsoever . . . any information heard or received at the said hearing,” a seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled.

“Although we are sensitive to the concerns raised by the respondent, we find that, in this particular case, they are insufficient to counterbalance the public interest in the knowledge of what has transpired at judicial proceedings that are open to the public,” Justice Betty C. Dickey wrote for the court.

Simes’ order came during a hearing in a highly publicized case between West Helena Mayor Johnny Weaver and the city council over Weaver’s attempt to oust the city’s police chief. In the hearing, Weaver requested to have Judge Simes recused from the case. He alleged that Simes had improperly started conversations with him about the case without the opposing party present in which the judge asked the mayor to deal leniently with the police chief, and had an interest in a radio station that broadcast council meetings.

The presumption against prior restraints is not absolute, but it is very strong, Dickey wrote, rejecting Simes’ argument that a state law requires confidentiality for proceedings related to judicial misconduct. The court doubted that the law applied to Simes’ case, but even if it did, “a statute cannot authorize a violation of the First Amendment,” Dickey wrote for the court.

The panel also rejected Simes’ arguments that unsupported allegations of judicial wrongdoing could damage his reputation and impair the public’s confidence in the judiciary. Should the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission’s investigation conclude that Simes should not be formally charged, damage to his reputation will be repaired, and “restricting the public’s knowledge of events that transpire in the courtroom may give rise to a suspicion of wrongdoing in the public mind, regardless of whether any basis for the suspicion in fact exists,” Dickey wrote for the court.

“In this particular case the proceeding concerned an issue, which was who was to be the city’s chief of police, of great public interest and concern to the people of West Helena,” she wrote. “The presence of the press in the courtroom serves a watchdog function, and it provides a salutary scrutiny which is a sure deterrent to governmental misconduct.”

Chief Justice Jim Hannah joined the majority’s judgment and in a concurring opinion, emphasized that unsubstantiated allegations of judicial impropriety in open court do not get greater protection merely because they concern judicial discipline issues. The mere fact that a complaint has been filed with the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission “means nothing more than someone has complained,” Hannah wrote. Moreover, the confidentiality requirement for commission proceedings “does not mean that anyone who happened to hear of the complaint is subject to judicial restraint.”

“I felt confident from the beginning that they would rule in our favor,” Daily World Publisher Clark Smith told the paper. “Under the advice of counsel, we expect to report the story of the proceedings in their entirety in the near future.”

Attorneys for the parties did not return calls.

The high court first considered the Daily World‘s petition in March 2005, declining to resolve the issue until the parties submitted a copy of the court’s order, the pleadings related to the case and a transcript of the hearing, explaining that it could not decide the issue without first reviewing those documents.

(Helena Daily World v. Simes; Media counsel: Troy A. Price, Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP, Little Rock)SB

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