IN OUR legal system, we hold public trials rather than secret tribunals. Open courts serve as bedrock in the foundation of our constitutional system.
As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, sunshine keeps citizens informed of the affairs of a key branch of government. It fosters trust in the proceedings. It ensures that the defendant, presumed innocent unless proven otherwise, gets a fair hearing. And it serves as a check on abuse by judges, jurors and attorneys.
Consequently, we close criminal trials to the public only in very limited circumstances -- and only when absolutely necessary. It's for that reason that the broad closure of proceedings in the case against Lafayette middle-school teacher Michael Merrick, who is charged with molesting one of his female students, is, like the case itself, very disturbing.
The extent of Judge Clare Maier's order, under a section of state law never used before in Contra Costa, sets a troubling precedent. We recognize that the courts can, and absolutely should, take steps to protect underage victims in sexual assault cases so they are not victimized again. This appears to be one of those cases. But those actions must be based on careful findings and should be narrowly tailored to the individual circumstance.
It's important that we understand the events that led to the order. The sequence began when a veteran reporter for AOL's online publication Patch.com legally obtained a public police report from the court file and then wrote an article that shed light on the interactions between the teacher and the student.
Unfortunately, the article contained details in one paragraph that made it easier for those who knew the girl to identify her. The prosecutor has rightly criticized the article. It went too far. The reporter should have shown more sensitivity to protecting the identity of an underage victim. But she is not the only one due criticism here.
For starters, the paragraph accurately reflects the police report. The reporter was legally entitled to the report; but court officials and the prosecutor were entitled to redact information that would identify the girl. While we don't want to encourage censoring of public documents, removal of that limited information would have been reasonable. The prosecutor says she still doesn't know who did the redaction.
Second, the reporter's editors should have questioned the offending paragraph. Third, the prosecutor tells us that when she contacted Patch, she insisted on removal of the entire article rather than identifying the problematic portion. Fourth, according to the prosecutor, Patch editors responded by refusing to pull down the story without trying to identify the problem. It was bad communication all around.
The problem was compounded this week when Patch issued a horribly misguided statement, three months after the story appeared, declaring its legal right to publish the entire article but failing to address the key paragraph or acknowledge its own lack of sensitivity. For online news sites to be respected, they must not only abide by the letter of the law, but also exercise good journalistic judgment. Otherwise, there will be repercussions for all journalists, and a troubling tightening of public access to the legal process, as we see in this case.
When an attorney for the girl's family complained about the Patch article, the prosecutor took the issue to Judge Maier, who issued the order closing testimony about or by the girl in the preliminary hearing and the trial. Given the nature of the crime, that has the potential to close most of the proceedings.
Maier is scheduled to review the logistics of her order on March 22. We hope she will demonstrate sensitivity to the girl and to the integrity and openness of the legal process. What's called for here is a reasoned balancing of interests.