Saturday, October 11, 2008

One Man's Fights for the Right to Open Courtrooom

Published: October 12, 2008

David Starkey stands next to a sign on the door to District Judge Dwayne Steidley's courtroom in Rogers County that tells people the public isn't welcome. By Tony ThorntonCLAREMORE —

They don’t disregard the entire 6th Amendment to the Constitution in Rogers County, David Starkey contends.
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Closed Courtroom

Several people talk about rule a Rogers County judge has imposed that bans the public from viewing court proceedings.

Just the most important part.
Starkey has documented several occasions when the public was refused entry into court proceedings, including his own. He said the policy dates to at least 2002.

A sign on District Judge Dwayne Steidley’s courtroom confirms that the public isn’t welcome.
"ONLY DEFENDANTS are allowed in the court room,” the sign states. "Family and friends must stay in the hallway.”
"You’ve gotta ask: ‘Why does he not want people in there?’” said Starkey, who in April 2007 created the Web site He wants an investigation of the local court system.

The closed-door practice isn’t confined to Steidley’s courtroom. Next door, during a criminal docket Wednesday, a sheriff’s deputy said Special Judge Erin Oquin would have to approve any party other than attorneys before entering.
The Rogers County policy left one open government advocate aghast.

"That is unbelievable,” said Joey Senat, past president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma and an associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University.
Steidley, a former state legislator, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
District Judge Dynda Post, the county’s presiding judge, said she was troubled to learn of the policy and said she didn’t condone it.

She said she ordered Steidley’s sign removed and added, "It won’t go back up.”
Post said she has scheduled a judges’ meeting for this week "to make sure that everybody understands that no one is prohibiting the public from entering a courtroom.”

Closing courts legal in limited instancesBoth the Oklahoma Constitution and the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantee defendants the right to an open trial. But what about other court appearances?

Oklahoma law requires that a defendant’s plea must take place within open court.
In a 1986 case, the U.S. Supreme Court said a judge may close a courtroom only under "limited circumstances.”

In Oklahoma, exceptions to that requirement include adoption, juvenile, mental health and guardianship proceedings.
Senat said the Rogers County practice is "so outrageous as to be impossible to believe.”
Four months after creating the grand jury Web site, Starkey faced a domestic abuse charge in Rogers County.

At his preliminary hearing in January, a deputy announced to the courtroom that only criminal defendants could stay, two friends of Starkey wrote in affidavits.

The same thing happened at Starkey’s formal arraignment a month later, one friend wrote.
Judge Post said it won’t happen again.
"The public is not to be excluded,” she said.
You’ve gotta ask: ‘Why does (District Judge Dwayne Steidley) not want people in there?’”
David Starkey CREATOR OF the Web site

Man fights for right to open courtroomscourtsDistrict judges bar public from proceedings
Comments 11

Some state judges forget courts belong to publicClosing courtrooms

WHAT is it about some judges in Oklahoma who believe their courtrooms are literally just that — theirs — and thus can be used however they please? How is it that some lose sight of, or simply choose to ignore, the fact that courtrooms are public property?
The latest example of judges behaving badly comes from Rogers County, where District Judge Dwayne Steidley had a sign posted outside his courtroom that made it clear the public wasn’t welcome: "ONLY DEFENDANTS are allowed in the court room. Family and friends must stay in the hallway.”
The Oklahoman’s Tony Thornton visited the court- house last week and reported that next door to Steidley’s courtroom, Special Judge Erin Oquin decided whether anyone other than attorneys were allowed in for that day’s criminal arraignment docket. A deputy said space constraints were the reason why, although Thornton noted that when he was shooed away, only one person was in the gallery.

The county’s presiding judge, Dynda Post, says she was troubled by the policy in Steidley’s courtroom and that she ordered his sign removed. Post plans to meet with her judges this week to straighten things out. "The public is not to be excluded,” she said.

The Supreme Court has held that criminal proceedings are presumed to be open, although judges are allowed in some cases to close the court. In Oklahoma, cases involving adoption, juveniles, and mental health and guardianship proceedings may be closed.

The Tulsa World reported last year that judges in many counties were closing public access to criminal hearings that involved drug and mental health courts. Some of those judges pointed to federal medical privacy laws as the reason.

We’re not sure of Steidley’s reasoning for closing his courtroom because he didn’t respond to the reporter’s messages seeking an explanation. Perhaps he’ll explain it to a grand jury if one is convened, as citizen David Starkey hopes.

Starkey started a Web site last year to get an investigation of the courthouse practices, which he has witnessed firsthand — his preliminary hearing and arraignment on a domestic abuse charge were restricted earlier this year.

Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University journalism professor and past president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, said what has gone on in Rogers County is "so outrageous as to be impossible to believe.” Outrageous, yes. Impossible to believe? Sadly, no.
The Supreme Court has held that criminal proceedings are presumed to be open

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