Three years after taking a stand for First Amendment rights by requesting a transcript from Genesee County Family Court, The Batavian received vindication with a ruling that stated such information cannot be denied to the media company.
Stemming from a Family Court case in November 2019, the request was made after Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, was barred access to Genesee County Family Court. Attorney Thomas Burns, who represented a woman accused of hitting her child with an object, had filed a motion alleging that prosecuting attorney Durin Rogers had a conflict of interest because he was also a part-time City Court judge. Burns filed the motion claiming that as a City Court judge, Rogers would also be able to interact with other members of the county’s criminal justice system, and he should be disqualified from that particular case.
Niagara County Family Court Judge Erin DeLabio barred Owens from access to the courtroom for the conflict of interest hearing, and also ruled against the request for a transcript of the hearing. She cited “confidentiality” concerns that outweighed The Batavian’s belief that the transcript was public information that should be accessible to the press.
DeLabio’s decision was also partially due to her belief that Rogers had already been elected to the full-time City Court judge position and any potential conflict of interest would therefore have no bearing on the election. The election was not the basis for the initial motion filed by Burns, but, rather, the two roles served simultaneously by Rogers.
Owens and his legal team, led by Heather Murray, managing attorney for The Local Journalism Project at Cornell First Amendment Clinic, filed an appeal on that ruling in December 2020.
A final decision, issued by the Fourth Judicial Department of the Appellate Division on March 18, stated:
“To the extent that the court determined that the attorney disqualification hearing was no longer relevant because Rogers had already been elected to the full-time judgeship, we agree with appellant that the court improperly ignored both the continued importance of appellant’s role in reporting accusations of ethical violations or conflicts of interest on the part of a judge and the principle that, here, it was within the province of the appellant to determine whether the hearing on the disqualification motion remained newsworthy.”
“On the merits, appellant contends that the court violated its right to attend the disqualification hearing and that it is therefore entitled to a transcript of the hearing, the release of which, with appropriate redaction, would be consistent with Family Court Act § 166 … we agree.”
It was a determination expected by Owens based on his knowledge of the First Amendment and state law and assistance from Cornell University, he said.
“When I was first excluded from the courtroom, I knew the law was on my side. This ruling affirms that all courts in New York are open to the public and can’t be closed to the public without a hearing and factual findings within the perimeters of the law. I knew from my initial research on our exclusion from the hearing that there isn’t much case law affirming this principle for Family Court, so this ruling is especially significant,” he said Saturday.
“The language of the law governing access to courts, including Family Court, is very clear and easy to understand. It doesn’t surprise me that The Batavian prevailed with its appeal.
“It’s long been my belief that local journalists have an obligation to stand up for transparency in government and the right to public access to public business. I’m grateful to the Cornell First Amendment Clinic for taking up this case. Mark Jackson and Heather Murray recognized the principles involved in this case and all of the students -- notably Ashley Stamegna -- who did the hard work of researching case law, writing briefs, and presenting arguments, were dedicated to the First Amendment issues at stake.
“One of the principles in this case that I’m glad the court recognized, is that journalists and not government officials, even judges, make editorial decisions and determine what is newsworthy. When the presiding judge in this case ruled that the material we sought was no longer newsworthy as a reason for her denial of our request for a transcript, it was particularly galling. It was important that such an egregiously reasoned ruling not be allowed to stand.
“The ruling is also significant because the justices were unequivocal in their reasoning. There is no wiggle room in this ruling for judges in future courtrooms to close off access without ensuring they are properly following the law.
“It’s important to note, the law still gives Family Court judges great authority to protect the privacy of children in Family Court matters. This ruling doesn't change that but it does emphasize that judges cannot arbitrarily exclude the public from proceedings.”
The decision will remand the issue back to Genesee County Family Court to provide Owens with a copy of a redacted (blacking out items of confidentiality) transcript. That’s all he was asking for in the first place, Owens said.
“All we requested was a redacted transcript (to protect the privacy of the family involved in the case), so we were surprised and disappointed in DeLabio’s decision,” he had said at the time of appeal. “Most troubling in her ruling is her statement, ‘The motion was heard AFTER (her emphasis) the local elections. Reporting anything that the (sic) Batavian thinks is relevant to the election after the fact, would have no impact on the election …’”
“Judge DeLabio is not employed by The Batavian. She is not an editor. She is a judge. It is not her place to pass editorial judgments on what is newsworthy.”
We are thrilled by the complete victory for our client,” Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic student Ashley Stamegna said. “Without judicial transparency, we cannot ensure that justice is being done in our courts of law. The Fourth Department’s opinion reaffirms the New York courts’ commitment to providing the transparency that both the law and the public requires. The opinion also clearly demonstrates that it is the province of local journalists—not the courts—to determine what content is newsworthy.”
Stamegna argued on behalf of The Batavian at the Fourth Department. The Cornell First Amendment Clinic team at the appellate level included lead attorney Heather Murray, Mark Jackson, Jared Carter and students Timothy Birchfield and Christopher Johnson. Murray and Cortelyou Kenney argued at the lower court with summer fellow Samuel Aber assisting with the briefing.
File Photo: Taken of Niagara County Judge Erin P. DeLabio in 2019 from outside Genesee County Family Court through the doorway window.
To read the full decision, click here (PDF)