California judge closes courtroom in newspaper contempt case

Friday, August 13, 1999

(Editor's note: Hearings on a contempt-of-court charge against the Santa Cruz County Sentinel have been postponed because of the newspaper's request that the judge overseeing the case be removed. Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge John Stevens agreed to wait until Sept. 22 so that the motion could be reviewed.)

A California judge has slammed the courtroom door shut in a local newspaper's contempt-of-court case, ordering both the press and the public to stay out.

Superior Court Judge Samuel Stevens issued the order July 30 in the court's case against the Santa Cruz County Sentinel, reporter Robin Musitelli and Mark Mendez, the father of a methadone-addicted baby. The charges were initiated last month after the newspaper published an article detailing Mendez's accusations against Child Protective Services. Mendez claims the agency lied to the court about the reasons for the baby's addiction.

The court charged the paper with publishing confidential information from court records, which is prohibited in juvenile cases. Although the contempt case does not directly involve the child, Stevens maintains that the closed courtroom is necessary to protect the child's rights.

“It's a dependency case, and juvenile cases are always closed to the public,” said Alex Calvo, a spokesman for the Santa Cruz County Court.

However, officials from both the Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury News are fighting to keep the court open, maintaining that members of the public and representatives of the press are guaranteed the right to attend a public trial.

“The First Amendment and California Constitution and California state law all create the right of access to public proceedings,” said James Chadwick, attorney for the Mercury News. “This also applies to contempt proceedings.”

Sentinel Editor Tom Honig says the case should not be treated as a juvenile issue, as the judge argues, but as a criminal issue, which would keep the court open. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said that criminal trials must be kept open to the public.

“I think that it's not the juvenile who is on trial here. It's what amounts to a criminal hearing against our newspaper, the father and the reporter,” he said.

Honig says that because his paper is an agent of the public, closing the courtroom would put him in a very precarious position.

“It makes me extremely uncomfortable as a newspaper — a representative of the public — to be part of a private hearing,” said Honig. “To be forced into court, then be forced into not reporting things that we witness, puts us into a horrible position.”

Stevens has agreed to listen to arguments from both papers on the closed-courtroom issue on Aug. 16.

Honig hopes that the judge will reconsider and drop the charges, but he says that the damage has already been done, as he has seen reporters begin to drop their investigations into controversial stories that need to be told.

“The prospect of walking into court and facing charges over something you've written is really a bad situation that no reporter wants to get into,” said Honig.

“I think as far as printing a story is concerned, to threaten us with jail time because of something we have written that they apparently don't like is the kind of fear-mongering that the Founding Fathers were trying to protect against,” he said.

A hearing on the contempt charges has been scheduled for Aug. 24.