Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. was unsuccessful Wednesday in getting a visiting district court judge to open the courtroom where he held a hearing on changing the conditions of Rev. Gregory Drumwright’s bond. [See separate story this edition.]
Instead, the proceeding was closed to only Drumwright, his attorneys and their staffs, the assistant district attorney, and various court staff, bailiffs, and sheriff’s deputies.
“We learned about the hearing on such short notice,” Boney said, “that our only opportunity to be heard was to write the presiding judge a letter. Normally, we would have sought to raise the issue in the courtroom, but it became clear that the judge was going to bar our entry from the outset, so we literally couldn’t even get in the door to make our appeal.”
Instead, in his letter, Boney acknowledged the challenges and restrictions that the court system is dealing with in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but argued that even those factors should not overcome the North Carolina Constitution’s straightforward statement that “All courts shall be open,” as specified in Article I, section 18.
“We certainly recognize the difficulties and complexities of dealing with open court issues in the midst of the current pandemic,” Boney wrote in his letter to judge Fred Wilkins, a visiting district court judge from Rockingham County. “However, we think the paramount responsibility here is to find ways to comply with the N.C. Constitution’s requirement that “All courts shall be open” (Article I, section 18), even with attendant challenges.”
Boney noted the widespread public interest in the proceedings. “There is enormous public interest in Rev. Drumwright’s case, and, quite frankly, every dimension of it, including this hearing on conditions of his bond – even though that might usually be a mundane proceeding,” he wrote.
Boney pointed to the explicit provision in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order limiting indoor activities to 10 people that gave special consideration and an exemption for “First Amendment activities.”
Boney also cited N.C. Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley’s guidance from March, when courts and other services were first restricted or shuttered altogether. “Our courts are always open to the public,” Beasley had said at the time, and the order she signed stated, “the superior courts and district courts remain open.”
“Courts have generally recognized that the media, in a sense, stand in the shoes of the public and citizens who lack the ability to individually get all the information they want and need,” Boney wrote. “As North Carolina’s citizens are asked to stay home, they rely even more on the media to be the conduit of information.”
Boney also asked that, if the judge did not grant the publisher’s request to open the courtroom, he at least comply with federal precedents and guidelines, which specify that when courtrooms are closed to the public or press, certain procedural safeguards are to be undertaken. Among those are a requirement that a judge provide written “findings of fact” detailing why the closure was necessary; outlining the “overriding governmental interest” necessitating the closure; and that there are no other, less restrictive means available.
As best as could be determined, Wilkins did not do so. In fact, he sent the letter back to the publisher after a few seconds’ perusal before the hearing began, with a brief message from his clerk, “He says ‘no.’”