A federal judge in New Orleans should explain his reasons for a puzzling decision to expel two reporters from a courtroom during a public trial.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and two of his top aides agreed Tuesday to settle a federal lawsuit against them alleging racial discrimination and a hostile work environment. Yet when U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle prepared to tell jurors of the settlement, he had two news reporters sent out of the room.
This is inexplicable on several levels, because while the sealed settlement does not disclose any details, ultimately if the District Attorney’s Office pays to settle the lawsuit, any public payments will have to be just that: public.
Through a law clerk, Lemelle declined to explain his decision to order the removal of two reporters — one for The New Orleans Advocate and the other for nola.com — from the courtroom as the parties stood to announce a settlement. The jury was not present when Lemelle issued that order.
The reporters re-entered the courtroom as Lemelle addressed the jurors before releasing them. But a bailiff ordered them out again after attorneys working for the District Attorney’s Office rose to complain.
It was unclear whether the judge was aware of the second removal of the reporters as he addressed the jury. A request to the bailiff to bring the matter to the judge’s attention went unmet.
Obviously, this is a sensitive matter for the plaintiffs and defendants, but so is any significant trial — and the right to open justice isn’t in doubt.
“The public and the press generally have a First Amendment right to view all proceedings conducted in open court,” Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino told The New Orleans Advocate. “Only when the court finds compelling reasons for closing the courtroom and states those reasons on the record is this presumptive right of access denied.”
Mary Ellen Roy, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues, agreed, saying that judges may close courtrooms to the public when juries are present under only “a very limited set of circumstances,” such as when trade secrets are being discussed.
From the bench, Lemelle did not state a reason for kicking out the reporters.
Any dollar figure attached to Tuesday’s settlement is almost certain to become public once the office pays it out. The decision to boot reporters from the room remains a mystery, and it shouldn’t, because the judge owes the public an explanation.