On the first day of 2000, a Vietnamese refugee was stabbed to death by another Vietnamese refugee.
I attended the trial the next year. It was a confusing case. Not the stabbing part. We knew the identities of the victim and the assailant. We even knew the motive. The victim had given one of the assailant’s children a gift, and the assailant was offended and angrily returned the gift. The gift-giver got some friends from the International Institute and went to the assailant’s house to teach him a lesson. The stabbing occurred during the ensuing fight.
The assailant was claiming self-defense. The confusion had to do with language. The defendant and his wife spoke no English. Neither did the Bosnians, who were at the trial as witnesses. So everybody needed an interpreter. There was some question as to the English proficiency of the Bosnian interpreter.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Philip Heagney questioned her about her command of English. She seemed to understand his questions perfectly, but she was not up to speed with certain legal terms. She responded to one question with, “Yes, Your Majesty,” and to another with, “Yes, Your Honesty.”
The judge declared her proficient. A few spectators smiled. The judge noticed that and smiled, too. I liked that.
Of course, some judges take themselves more seriously. St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Ribaudo is clearly in that number.
Last week, Christine Bertelson, director of strategic communications for the county court, sent out an email announcing that Post-Dispatch reporter Joel Currier had been found in contempt of court for “secretly eavesdropping outside a courtroom door and live tweeting” a hearing on the mental fitness of Antonio Taylor, who is charged with shooting Ballwin police officer Michael Flamion in the neck during a traffic stop in 2016.
Bertelson, who was a columnist and editorial page editor for this newspaper before becoming a strategic director of communications, suggested that Ribaudo was being lenient.
“Although contempt of court is punishable by fine and/or jail time, Judge Ribaudo’s order only requires Currier to write letters of apology to the defendant, the police officer, prosecutor and public defender. Currier is also required to participate in an educational program with court staff about issues relating to freedom of the press and the right of parties to litigation to have a fair trial.”
As regular readers know, I do not support tweeting — live or otherwise — and I hesitate to suggest that the judge and the director of strategic communications are being self-important, but let’s put this situation in some context.
Taylor is accused of a very serious crime. Officer Flamion is paralyzed because of the shooting. Public interest is high. People figure they have a right to know what’s going on with the case.
In explaining her decision to close the hearing concerning Taylor’s mental competency, Ribaudo cited Missouri revised Statute 552.020. I looked it up. Eight pages of law and legal definitions. Blah, blah, blah. And then, “The result of any examinations made pursuant to this section shall not be a public record or open to the public.”
Because any decision about mental competency is predicated on the result of such examinations, a judge could conceivably shut out the public entirely in these cases. We would never know what happened to Taylor and similar defendants.
I have never heard of a judge taking that position. Will Ribaudo’s reasoning become the new normal?
Hopefully not. Hopefully, the judge is just reacting because Currier had the audacity to tweet that she had closed the courtroom, leaving him to spend the afternoon “with my ear glued to the door, live-tweeting details.” Bertelson included a screen shot of the offending tweet in her press release.
Currier has apologized for his actions.
Although I don’t defend tweeting, I have spent enough time in this low trade to know that reporters are sometimes pushy about getting information they think they are entitled to. In fact, Tim O’Neil, now retired, lost a fingertip in 2016 when a municipal attorney slammed a conference room door on his hand in the same courthouse where Currier eavesdropped and tweeted.
In her contempt order, Ribaudo wrote, “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”
She was referring to pushy reporters, but she could have been talking about courts that prefer to operate behind closed doors. What we can’t see, we don’t trust. That’s true no matter whether we call the judge “Your Majesty,” “Your Honesty” or “Your Honor.”