The current publisher of this newspaper has covered local government, local courts, local people and events for over 30 years now.
But we cannot recall witnessing as irrational, as obdurate, or as ill-informed – or just plain boneheaded – a performance as the publisher was subjected to this week by visiting district court judge Fred Wilkins from Rockingham County.
We thought Wilkins was very wrong last week when he refused to allow the newspaper’s publisher and representatives of other media to attend a bond hearing he conducted regarding the district attorney’s motion to add conditions to the bond for Rev. Greg Drumwright, who has been charged with two felonies and three misdemeanors in conjunction with his march and rally on October 31.
Wilkins appears to believe that he is the king – yea, perhaps even emperor or dictator – of his courtroom.
And apparently even the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions need not interfere with the Lord High Wilkins’ despotic reign.
For last Wednesday and again this Tuesday Wilkins flatly ignored provisions of the North Carolina Constitution which we’ve always thought were amazingly succinct, direct, and readily comprehensible: “All courts shall be open,” as provided in Article I, Section 24 of the state Constitution.
Instead, Wilkins last week barred our publisher and other reporters from being in court while he considered the district attorney’s motion for stronger terms and Drumwright’s attorneys’ objections to it.
Wilkins rejected the D.A.’s request, but his exact rationale may never be understood – since no one from the press was allowed in to hear the arguments, counterarguments, or the judge’s decision or reasoning.
This week’s case involved the “other side” of the racial divide: a white woman charged with trying to run over two little black girls.
Wilkins was even more high-handed: he ordered the publisher, who was already present in the courtroom, to get out; and when the publisher pressed, repeatedly, to explain why he should be allowed to stay, Wilkins wouldn’t listen, shut him down, and ultimately ordered him carted off to jail with a citation for contempt of court.
As the publisher was being handcuffed in the adjacent hallway outside the courtroom (rather roughly, we might add, see other comments on page 3), Wilkins sent word relenting on the order to have the journalist taken to jail, instead instructing that he be removed from the courthouse.
The judge’s demeanor and responses in the courtroom did not come even close to meeting the standards specified in North Carolina’s Code of Judicial Conduct — on several counts.
“A judge should be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in the judge’s official capacity….” Ha!
Wilkins was neither patient (quite to the contrary, exceedingly impatient), certainly not dignified, and not the least bit courteous as he imposed his banishment on this newspaper’s publisher.
Another judicial standard that Wilkins failed, miserably, to uphold was to “accord to every person who is legally interested in a proceeding, or the person’s lawyer, full right to be heard according to law….”
Wilkins refused, repeatedly, to listen as the publisher tried – using the very standards of patience, dignity, and courtesy that the judge lacked – to explain why he, as a newspaperman and reporter for his newspaper, was entitled to remain in the courtroom.
In addition to ignoring the plain and simple aspects of the North Carolina Constitution’s open courts guarantee, Wilkins evidenced a total disregard for (or perhaps ignorance of) the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court cases that have consistently and repeatedly laid out the right of the public and press to attend trials and other judicial proceedings. [See separate editorial below.]
In fact, we’d have to say that Wilkins’ wholesale disregard of these highest fundamental legal documents makes us question his fundamental ability to render any legal judgment in an Alamance County courtroom. Or elsewhere, for that matter.
If he cannot, or will not, uphold the highest legal principles of the state and nation – i.e., those outlined and specified in the constitutions, state and national – we have no confidence whatsoever that he can apply lesser principles like those in any criminal statutes.
The state’s judicial canons also provide that a judge is allowed to discipline errant court personnel under his supervision, but who, we wonder, is to discipline, sanction, or remove a judge who is so out of line with our laws?
We do not know Wilkins, and, in fact, had never even heard of him before this and last week’s encounters with him. We have no longstanding or other animus toward him.
But tyrannical behavior should not be tolerated.
His unilateral, unconstitutional rulings are a blemish on Alamance County’s court system.
And, of course, the greatest irony in his leaving such a stain on the county’s reputation is that he’s not even from here; he’s simply a visiting judge from Rockingham County. But we fear he’s done lasting damage.
We were his victims this week and last. But when a judge is so willing to ignore the highest laws of the state and nation, one can only fear what he’ll do next – or who will be his next victim(s).