This is an opinion column.
When a public official goes on trial, more is at stake than the defendant’s future. Trust in the system hangs in Lady Justice’s scales.
But in Limestone County, where the county’s longtime sheriff, Mike Blakely, is standing trial on corruption charges, justice wasn’t blind.
The public was.
For a day and a half of jury selection this week, Judge Pamela Baschab didn’t seem to give two taps of the gavel about the law. She did things her way, not the Constitution’s way, and she disregarded a fundamental principle of our justice system — open courts — because she seemed to think that was her prerogative.
This week, state and local news reporters arrived at the courthouse in Athens to cover jury selection in Blakely’s trial, only to be turned away by the bailiffs.
The reasons they were given have, shall we say, evolved.
At first, a court bailiff told AL.com’s Ashley Remkus that it was against the law for them to observe jury selection.
That was flat-out not true.
I personally have covered trials in state and federal courts where I sat through jury selection, as have many of the reporters there this week in Limestone County. Were all those other judges in all those other cases too dumb to notice the lawbreakers in the back of the courtrooms? If the staff’s understanding of the law were correct, then any number of media folks should be in jail already.
But it’s not against the law. They were just making that part up. Luckily, legislatures make laws, not courthouse lackeys on the fly. So that excuse didn’t last very long.
Next, court staff told the reporters there wasn’t room. Reporters offered to stand. Also, courts are required to accommodate the public, so if there wasn’t room, that’s on them.
Next, they said the judge had ordered jury selection closed to the public. Only there was no written order in the online court file and, when asked, the court staff couldn’t produce one.
Finally, they said the judge had decided that having media in the room might make jurors uncomfortable.
“She would want to make certain that jurors felt comfortable,” her bailiff said. “That there wasn’t people asking them — taking their names and so on and so forth. And so for that reason, she’s not having access.”
Or in fewer words, because she didn’t want to.
Why does this matter?
First, this is an important trial. Even if Blakely wins an acquittal, details will come out of this trial that voters need to know the next time they pick a sheriff in Limestone County.
Second, there’s news interest in the jury selection process, even when those proceedings don’t generate stories you read in print or see on TV.
Jury selection is, as a prosecutor once put it to me, like speed-dating 50 people at a time. It’s where the lawyers first build rapport with jurors, exuding charm, quizzing their interests and exploring their life experiences. I’ve seen lawyers ask everything from jurors’ religious denominations to whether they were Alabama or Auburn fans.
And in jury selection, lawyers often ask interesting questions that can give a sense of where they’re heading with their cases. It’s when they delicately test which jurors might be most receptive to their arguments and which one they might want to strike.
And jury selection is where awful things can happen in the justice system — juries that look exactly like or nothing like the defendant. This is important stuff.
Reporters don’t run to jurors’ houses mid-trial to ask them which way they’re leaning, and they don’t publish jurors’ identities without permission. We know where the lines are.
Again, reporters sitting through jury selection is nothing new, novel or rare. It’s common.
What’s uncommon is a judge kicking them out.
Which brings us to the second, and most important reason all this matters — it’s the law.
The United States Constitution guarantees public trials. Period.
Further, the United States Supreme Court has held that the principle of open courts extends to jury selection unless there’s a darn good reason to close the court. The Alabama Supreme Court has said this, too. And if there is such a reason, the judge is supposed to state that reason in open court and give interested parties an opportunity to object.
That didn’t happen here.
When the Alabama Media Group and WHNT sent a letter on Monday asking the judge to open the proceedings, she ignored it.
Next, the Alabama Press Association, the Alabama Broadcasters Association and seven media companies, including the Alabama Media Group, filed a motion to open the court and restart the trial.
Finally, Tuesday afternoon, Judge Baschab agreed to open her courtroom.
But it shouldn’t have taken so much effort.
The public deserves to know whether it can trust public officials — whether that’s a sheriff accused of breaking laws he was supposed to enforce, or the court that’s supposed to uphold laws it grossly ignored.
It’s the media’s role to be the public’s witness — to watch, to listen, to report.
We shouldn’t have to explain the law to a judge.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, 2020 winner of the Walker Stone Award, winner of the 2021 SPJ award for opinion writing, and 2021 winner of the Molly Ivins prize for political commentary.
You can follow his work on his Facebook page, The War on Dumb. And on Twitter. And on Instagram.
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