Nothing says totalitarian quite like "secret court proceedings," which is one of several reasons to celebrate the overturning of a sweeping gag order in the criminal prosecution of coal magnate Don Blankenship in West Virginia.
In striking down U.S. District Judge Irene Berger's gag order last week, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that Berger was motivated by a "sincere and forthright" desire to protect Blankenship's right to a jury unprejudiced by pre-trial publicity.
But the appeals court also pointed out that judges have reasonable alternatives to draconian information blackouts for protecting defendants' rights.
Also Berger imposed her gag order without establishing a "substantial probability" that Blankenship's right to a fair trial would be jeopardized by others exercising their First Amendment rights.
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Berger's order had sealed hundreds of pages of court documents and filings. It prohibited the lawyers from talking to the media or releasing documents about the case and even went so far as to prohibit the families of the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster from talking about the case to the media.
Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, is charged with willfully violating mine-safety laws, conspiring to conceal safety violations and thwart enforcement, and misleading the investing public and Securities and Exchange Commission about the company's safety practices. His trial is expected to start April 20 in Beckley, W.Va.
More than two dozen news organizations had appealed the gag order which was issued in November. In removing the gag, the appeals panel cited the First Amendment rights of Americans to gather news and receive speech from willing speakers.
But another building block of our democracy also was at stake: the right to a judicial system that's open to public scrutiny.
One of the main grievances cited by the American colonists who broke with England in 1776 was King George's kangaroo courts.
It's a lot easier to make a mockery of justice in a closed courtroom or judicial system than when the public has a complete view of all the inner workings.
As we prepare to observe another Sunshine Week beginning Sunday, our country's open system of justice is something to celebrate and protect.