Tulsa judges remove signs barring public from courtrooms

After being questioned this week by the Tulsa World, two Tulsa County judges removed signs denying the public access to their courtrooms, the newspaper reported today.

Three signs outside Special Judge Charles Hogshead's courtroom and chambers had stated: "Plaintiffs and defendants in courtroom only please."

Presiding District Judge Tom Thornbrugh told the newspaper the signs were "not clear enough" and were "inartfully expressed."

The Tulsa World also inquired about a sign on the door of Special Judge Rodney Sparkman's courtroom stating that because of space constraints, "only petitioners, respondents and attorneys allowed. If your name is not on the docket do not enter the courtroom."

Sparkman told the newspaper that "since this sign has been brought to our attention it has been removed."

(Sparkman was the judge who agreed to seal the divorce records of then-mayoral candidate Dewey Bartlett Jr. in September.)

The judges said the signs were an effort to deal with crowded courtrooms, but Thornbrugh said a better way would be developed to address the problem.

A little more than two years ago, similar signs were removed from outside Rogers County courtrooms only after The Oklahoman inquired about them.

But publicity by newspapers shouldn't be required to protect the public's right of access to courtrooms.

That courtrooms are open the public "has long been recognized as an indispensable attribute of an Anglo-American trial," the US Supreme Court said 30 years ago. (Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 568 (1980))

“Closed trials breed suspicion of prejudice and arbitrariness, which in turn spawns disrespect for law,” then-Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in
Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia. “Open trials assure the public that procedural rights are respected, and that justice is afforded equally.”

Open trials discourage “perjury, the misconduct of participants, and decisions based on secret bias or partiality.” They also have a “significant community therapeutic value, … providing an outlet for community concern, hostility, and emotion.”

Closing courtrooms hurts not only the public but also criminal defendants, who are guaranteed the right to a public trial by the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution and by the Oklahoma Constitution. (OKLA. CONST. art. II, § 20)

In 1948, the Criminal Court of Appeals in Oklahoma said “public trial” means what the expression implies:

[A] public trial is a trial at which the public is free to attend. It is not essential to the right of attendance that a person be a relative of the accused, an attorney, a witness, or a reporter for the press, nor can those classes be taken as the exclusive representatives of the public. Men may have no interest whatever in the trial, except to see how justice is done in the courts of their country.”

(Neal v. State, 192 P.2d 294, 296-97 (Okla. Crim. App. 1948))

That shouldn't be news to today's trial judges.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.