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Private Justice for a Judge

August 21, 2003

Among the privileges judges enjoy are reserved parking, their own lunchrooms and, of course, the right to be hailed for life as "Your Honor." A private system of justice is not one of these perks. Yet that's what one Southern California judge has gotten so far.

Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Diana R. Hall was charged with two felonies and four misdemeanors last year. The charges resulted from her arrest on suspicion of drunk driving after a confrontation with her domestic partner that allegedly included Hall brandishing a gun and preventing her from calling 911 for help. Hall has pleaded not guilty to these charges.

Her trial was shifted from Santa Maria, where she sits, to Santa Barbara. Jury proceedings began Monday before Judge Carol Koppel-Claypool, a San Bernardino jurist put on the case to avoid conflict of interest.

After barring the public from a pretrial hearing last week, Koppel-Claypool revealed that she had held pretrial hearings to determine what evidence would be considered at trial. Exactly how many hearings she's held and how she ruled remain secret because Koppel-Claypool continued a gag order by an earlier judge on the lawyers, sealed the transcripts and closed her court to reporters and the public during the hearings. She agreed with lawyers who argued that airing potential evidence might make it impossible to pick a jury untainted by publicity.

There's no question the stakes are high for Hall, who would be forced from the bench if convicted of a felony. But why grant her such blanket secrecy, effectively a special protection? In fact, 2001 California court rules clearly state that the public and media have a presumptive 1st Amendment right to attend all court proceedings and see all court documents. Judges may close the doors and seal documents in rare instances, but they need a good reason to do so.

This standard hasn't been met, and the judge's shielding of this defendant undercuts public confidence in the court's impartiality. Hall is hardly the first defendant who might wish the rules different -- Winona Ryder, Kobe Bryant and an Orange County jurist accused in a child pornography case come to mind. Because Hall is a judge, a person with sway over others' lives and the law, there's a special need to see that her proceedings are open and fair. Koppel-Claypool has many means to ensure a fair trial, including questioning and sequestering jurors.

Lawyers for The Times and the Santa Barbara News-Press are to appear before Koppel-Claypool today, asking her to lift the gag order, unseal hearing transcripts and open future hearings. The judge would be wise to remember that California's appellate courts have been emphatic about keeping the legal process open.

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