Ark. high court dissolves judge's gag order against newspaper

By The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas circuit judge doesn’t have the authority to countermand the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the state Supreme Court says.

The high court ruled yesterday that Phillips County Circuit Judge L.T. Simes did not have the right to prevent a newspaper from reporting testimony given during a pre-trial hearing.

The justices dissolved an injunction that Simes issued against the Helena Daily World in 2005. Justices called the restraining order “an unconstitutional prior restraint on the press.”

The injunction was related to a dispute between then-West Helena Mayor Johnny Weaver and the West Helena City Council over Weaver’s attempts to oust the city’s police chief.

Simes issued an injunction against the paper preventing it from reporting on testimony Weaver gave in a pre-trial hearing where he asked for Simes’ recusal from the case. Simes issued a restraining order prohibiting all communication of Weaver’s testimony related to a complaint Weaver had filed against the judge with the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission.

The judge had argued that Arkansas law requires confidentiality on proceedings related to judicial misconduct before there has been a ruling in the matter. Publicly discussing such allegations might harm the reputation of a judge and would harm the judge’s ability to maintain public confidence in the judicial system, Simes argued.

The high court said in its opinion that the state statute cannot be used to violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.

“Restricting the public’s knowledge of events that transpire in the courtroom may give rise to a suspicion of wrongdoing in the public mind, regardless of whether any basis for the suspicion in fact exists,” Associate Justice Betty C. Dickey wrote in the court’s opinion in Helena Daily World v. Simes. “The presence of the press in the courtroom serves a watchdog function, and it provides a salutary scrutiny which is a sure deterrent to governmental misconduct.”

In a related case, justices denied Weaver’s petition to overturn the reinstatement of Police Chief Vincent Bell, who was rehired by the City Council after Weaver fired him. Justices said Weaver can still fight the reinstatement through an appeal.

On Jan. 1, West Helena went out of existence in a merger with its neighbor Helena. The cities were merged to form the new city of Helena-West Helena.

The merger was approved by voters of the two cities in a special election last year.