Federal Judge Closes Civil Trial

Los Angeles federal judge Stephen V. Wilson is no fan of the press, to put it very, very mildly.

Despite that, it still came as a shock when the Los Angeles Times disclosed that he closed an ENTIRE civil trial. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-judge-secrecy24-2009jul24,0,4151874.story

As Lee Levine, http://www.lskslaw.com/bios/llevine.htm, one of the nation’s top First Amendment lawyers, said, “Astonishing. I’ve never heard of such a thing in federal court. There have been circumstances in which limited, targeted closing has been ordered because of specific sensitive or classified information or trade secrets. But the notion of closing an entire trial in a federal court is astounding.”

The case involves the 2005 prison killing of Jewish Defense League activist Earl Krugel, whose widow, Lola, was seeking damages for the wrongful death of her husband at the hands of David Frank Jennings, a known white supremacist.

Our favorite part of this story – other than the fact that the brilliant Wilson has been known to be rabid about many issues, including the media for years – is the reason why he took the perhaps unprecedented step of closing his ENTIRE PUBLICLY FUNDED COURTROOM from the swearing in of the first witness through closing arguments AND putting his ruling under seal.

Were there sensitive state secrets involved? No.

According to Court Clerk Paul Cruz, Wilson closed the courtroom because of “testimony that concerned confidential ways prison officials identify gang members, especially the Aryan Brotherwood, which is a very dangerous gang. If testimony on that were made public, that would jeopardize how prison administrators validate these types of defendants.”

Benjamin Schonbrun, the widow’s lawyer, said he plans an appeal of the decision.

Two questions.

One, is it really tantamount to the U.S. military’s plan to find Osama bin Laden to know that you look for the bald, white, muscle-bound dudes with KKK and other lovely tattoos?

Two, and even if there are secret handshakes involved, were there really no lesser means of protecting them than putting the First Amendment through a shredder? A more enlightened judge with valid concerns might have simply made confidential the testimony of the official who disclosed the secret handshake the bald, white, muscle-bound dudes with the KKK tattoo on their skulls use.

We’re just asking. …

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