Editorial, The (Greensboro) News & Record, Dec 13, 2020
By a judge’s command, Alamance News Publisher Tom Boney Jr. was handcuffed and hustled out of a courtroom last week.
His transgression? Being there.
And having the nerve to make a case for staying.
For no good reason, District Court Judge Fred Wilkins had banned reporters from the hearing for a white woman on trial for allegedly trying to hit two Black girls with her truck.
It wasn’t the first time this has happened in Alamance County.
A week before, reporters also had been kept out of a hearing involving a Greensboro activist minister, the Rev. Greg Drumwright, who had led an October march to the polls during which police officers and sheriff’s deputies pepper-sprayed protesters.
Boney tried to explain (in vain, it turned out) that he had legal grounds to be there.
To support his case, he had brought with him a document requesting a hearing on access to the courtroom from N.C. Press Association attorney Amanda Martin, who was representing Boney as well as Greensboro-based Triad City Beat and The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
Boney also had submitted written requests on Tuesday to Senior Resident Superior Court Judge D. Thomas Lambeth and Chief District Court Judge Bradley Reid Allen Jr. asking that they remind judges that courtrooms must be open to the public despite COVID-19 safety precautions.
“We believe there is a paramount responsibility to find ways to comply with the N.C. Constitution’s requirement that ‘All courts shall be open’ (Article 1, section 18), even with the attendant challenges associated with the pandemic,” Boney wrote in the letter.
But deputies told Boney that Wilkins had made his decision, and Boney needed to leave.
According to an attorney who witnessed the exchange, the judge had little patience for Boney’s arguments.
“I don’t care how you understand it,” Wilkins said, according to the witness’ account.
Boney said the judge pointed out that other people were allowed in the courtroom — such as defendants, attorneys or victims — just not reporters.
When Boney persisted, Wilkins threatened to have him thrown into jail and held in contempt if he didn’t leave.
Hard to believe, but all of this happened right here in America in 2020, a short drive from our doorsteps.
To be sure, there is a need for reasonable restrictions in North Carolina courtrooms as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to mount. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts’ website: “Courts are operating with reduced capacity. By order of the Chief Justice, only people with business at the courthouse will be allowed to enter.”
Reporters have “business” in the courts.
And the guidelines do include provisions for remote proceedings and closed-circuit television.
At the very least, Wilkins could have accommodated one pool reporter. He didn’t.
If anything, the judge seems to be using COVID as a convenient excuse to do the public’s business in private.
“It’s one of the most egregious examples I’ve seen of a judge who is absolutely unwilling to follow the law, or to even hear about the law or to hear anything connected to it,” Boney told The Associated Press.
Wilkins’ conduct may earn him a hearing of his own with the state’s Judicial Standards Commission.
“The key thing here is a criminal case was resolved without the public being a part of it and that’s not appropriate,” Mark Prak, a Raleigh lawyer whose specialty is media and communications law, told the Burlington Times-News.
As for the proceedings reporters were not able to see, 52-year-old Sandrea W. Brazee pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of assault with a deadly weapon. She received two consecutive 60-day jail sentences, which were suspended, and 12 months of supervised probation. She also is required to undergo a mental health/anger management exam and pay court costs, as well as a $1,000 fine.
That is a story that should have been reported firsthand by journalists.
And this is a story about a judge who didn’t follow the law.
Shame on him.
He should be held accountable.