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Appeals Court dismisses newspapers’ appeal to require Alamance County courtrooms to be open; issue now ‘moot,’ court rules

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has dismissed a petition filed by The Alamance News and two other news organizations that were prohibited from being present in an Alamance County courtroom twice last month to cover two high-profile, racially-charged court cases.

The Appeals Court on Tuesday declared the petition moot, since Alamance County’s two highest-ranking judges – senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth, Jr. and chief district court judge Brad Allen, Sr. – had recently issued an administrative order outlining procedures by which the press and general public can submit a request to gain access to a courthouse or courtroom. Though their order outlines a six-step process that must be followed to gain access to a courtroom, Lambeth and Allen insist that “Alamance County courts have remained open to the public and the media” throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The Alamance News and two other newspapers, The (Raleigh) News & Observer and Triad City Beat, an alternative weekly in Greensboro, filed a petition with the Court of Appeals last month to require Alamance County courtrooms to be open to members of the press and public.

The appeal was filed a week after visiting district court judge Fred Wilkins, Jr. ejected Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. from the courtroom inside Alamance County’s Historic Court House, initially directing sheriff’s deputies to arrest him for contempt. But the visiting judge changed his mind and instead directed sheriff’s deputies to remove the publisher from the Historic Court House. Boney had been attempting to cover the sentencing for a white woman from Burlington, Sandrea Brazee Warren, 53, who had been charged last summer with two counts of felony assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly trying to run over two 12-year-old black girls with her truck in the parking lot of a mini-mart in Graham. Those charges were later reduced to two misdemeanor counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

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Not only had Wilkins refused to allow the publisher to cover the hearing, he also refused to hear a motion that Boney had filed earlier that morning, outlining the constitutional and statutory mandates for courtrooms to be open to the public and press.

Wilkins had also refused to allow the publisher – or any other media – to be present inside the courtroom a week earlier, on December 2, for another high-profile hearing on a request to modify the conditions of a bond for Rev. Greg Drumwright of Greensboro. The request had been to ban Drumwright from being on county property while his case remains pending.

Drumwright was charged in early November with two felonies and several misdemeanors in connection with a march and rally he held at the historic courthouse on October 31. An Alamance County native and racial justice activist who also held a march in Graham last July, Drumwright and his legal team – which now includes renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump of Lumberton – bookended the bond modification hearing on December 2 with two separate press conferences. At the conclusion of his hearing before Wilkins, Drumwright announced that he and his legal team had prevailed in blocking the ban, which the visiting judge reportedly denied because it was overly-broad.

The Appeals Court previously rejected the newspapers’ request to expedite a hearing on their petition to reopen courtrooms to the press. The “petition for emergency writ of mandamus to require the criminal courts of Alamance County to be open to the public and the press,” was filed December 10 to overturn the courtroom closures imposed by Wilkins. The Appeals Court rejected the newspapers’ request for an expedited hearing the same day that now-former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley suspended most court hearings for 30 days; that suspension is currently scheduled to expire January 14.

Hearings for Drumwright and 22 other individuals charged during the October 31 march and rally – including Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski who was charged with resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer while taking photos of the event – have been rescheduled as a result of the 30-day suspension on court hearings. Most of the cases related to the October 31 march and rally, as well as cases involving defendants charged during earlier racial justice demonstrations in Graham, are currently scheduled to be heard in Alamance County district court in February and March, according to the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.

Amanda Martin, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association who represented the media coalition for its appeal, said she thinks the Court of Appeals should have ruled on the substantive legal issues, namely the constitutional mandates.

“We would much prefer to have had a stern ruling from the Court of Appeals saying how wrong Judge Wilkins’ actions were,” Martin said in response to the ruling Tuesday. “I certainly do think the actions [Boney] took a month ago, though, are what forced the local judges to enter the ‘new order.’”

Boney’s initial reaction to the order that Lambeth and Allen issued was mixed, a position he maintained this week.

“I wish the judges had been more candid and straightforward about the reason and need for their order – because, in fact, judge Wilkins’ court had not been open to the press,” the publisher said. “Judge Wilkins’ harsh attitude mandating secrecy was, granted, an aberration in what has usually been an attitude of openness by all Alamance County judges, at both the district and superior court levels, so I can understand their desire to minimize, or ignore, Wilkins’ actions, but I guess this is as close as jurists come to rebuking one of their own.”
Brooks Fuller, director of the Open Government Coalition, told The Alamance News that, while the order that Lambeth and Allen issued on December 18 appears reasonable on its face, “what’s immediately concerning is the practicality” of their order.

“If a proceeding is held in a particular courtroom, and it wouldn’t accommodate any more press, that is unresolved,” Fuller said last week in an interview with The Alamance News. “The order doesn’t give enough clarity to absolutely ensure that members of the press are allowed in the [courtroom]. At the end of the day, it doesn’t absolutely guarantee access to members of the press – I don’t think it’s a perfect order.” Fuller said he’s not aware of any other court systems in North Carolina where a judge has issued a blanket prohibition on members of the press being permitted to enter the courtroom to cover a case, as Wilkins did in Alamance County district court twice last month.

Lambeth and Allen note in their order that “space is limited in courtrooms to allow for social distancing,” meaning that individuals are to remain six feet from one another; and as such, only the first five media outlets that submit requests for access will be approved, “and no more for each court day or court case.” Their order also states that press access to courtrooms could be could be further reduced, if warranted by the number of defendants, witnesses, victims, and/or other individuals who are scheduled to appear for a specific case.

“Additionally, the procedural rigmarole set up in the order to designate, a day in advance, our or any other newspaper’s desire to attend what is supposed to be an open courtroom, is somewhat cumbersome and, I think, unnecessary,” said Boney. “Nonetheless, I suppose the new procedures are at least preferable to being threatened with contempt, expelled from a courtroom, and handcuffed. So I guess I’d have to consider it some progress. I’ll be glad when we can return to unrestricted open courtrooms, as guaranteed in the state Constitution.”

Lambeth and Allen also indicate that audio or video teleconferencing “may be possible,” to permit observers to view court hearings remotely, based on the order they issued December 18.

However, Alamance County court officials have not yet signaled whether those accommodations will be offered once the 30-day “pause” on most court proceedings is rescinded.

The director of the Open Government Coalition highlighted a “legal precedent that governs this entire dispute,” Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia. In a 7-1 decision rendered in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the right to attend criminal trials is “implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment.”

“That’s the strongest precedent there is,” Fuller explained. “The case basically says judges are obligated to accommodate press access; it doesn’t say anything about [an exception for] public health crises. I can’t think of a single case where a court has said that, absent a compelling interest, a courtroom can be closed. In run-of-the mill criminal courtrooms, you have to let the press in as a proxy for people in the public sphere.”

Meanwhile, many of the cases that had been slated for trial next week, including the arrest of Alamance News  reporter Tomas Murawski who had been taken photographs during one of the protests, have been rescheduled, most for March, a few in February.

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