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A high-handed shove out the courtroom door

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 22, 2009 at 7:52 pm |
October 30, 2009 10:58 am

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay.
Article 1, Section 10, Washington Constitution

When a robed judge is presiding over an open courtroom in a criminal case, it’s alarming to see the public booted out and the doors slammed shut.

That’s precisely what happened Monday, when King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce prevented a journalist and an attorney from watching a key witness provide sworn testimony for the trial of Judge Michael Hecht. Barred from the proceeding were The News Tribune’s Adam Lynn and an attorney representing the newspaper, James Beck.

The witness was Joseph Pfeiffer, whose testimony is crucial for both the prosecution and defense. Hecht, a Pierce County Superior Court judge, stands accused of felony harassment and patronizing a prostitute: Pfeiffer, an obviously troubled 21-year-old, is one of the alleged prostitutes Hecht is accused of frequenting.

Pfeiffer originally told police and this newspaper that Hecht gave him money for sex on multiple occasions. Pfeiffer later took a step back from that story, saying instead that Hecht gave him money and had sex with him – but the money wasn’t a quid pro quo for the sex.

It’s sordid either way, but the first version helps the prosecution while the second helps the defense. Because Pfeiffer is reportedly homeless and has a tendency to drop out of sight, the court wanted to get his testimony on record to secure it for next month’s trial.

Hence Monday’s proceeding. Sworn depositions are often done in private offices, but this was done in a courtroom – initially an open courtroom – with a judge making rulings from the bench.

The presumption in Washington is that such a hearing is open unless it is closed for very good reasons – and with a specific established process. The process spelled out by the state Supreme Court requires that the judge state the purpose of closure, hear out any objections, seek the least restrictive way to achieve the stated purpose, and weigh the interests of both defendant and public before making a decision.

That did not happen Monday. The News Tribune is now asking the Supreme Court to reverse Cayce’s high-handed ejection of Lynn and Beck from the courtroom and allow access to Pfeiffer’s testimony.

One reason courtrooms are open to the public is to preserve public confidence in what happens inside them. The need for confidence in the judiciary is particularly critical in this case because a judge has been accused of criminal conduct.

The public has an overriding interest in the way the Hecht case is handled. To have another judge shove observers out the door – without the usual safeguards – is no way to assure trust in the process.

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