This week the Vermont Supreme Court heard an argument from WCAX to release a judicial ruling handed down last year.
WCAX secured the favorable ruling in Superior Court to quash a subpoena from a prosecutor who wanted to view the TV station’s unedited video of an incident in which a bank robber was shot by Vermont State Police in Montpelier.
The prosecutor wanted to see the tape, as part of a secret inquest, to decide if any criminal charges were warranted against police. WCAX successfully argued the video was protected under Vermont’s new media shield law.
But the ruling itself - complete with the judge’s legal rationale - remains under seal. In October Judge Howard VanBenthuysen wrote that the decision was the culmination of a confidential inquest. As such, the fruit of the process should also remain secret.
As New England First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman explains, “Concealing court opinions deprives the public an opportunity to learn why judges rule as they do. Such secrecy shouldn’t occur unless under the most consequential of circumstances. It is antithetical to a functioning democracy.”
We wholeheartedly agree and wonder why courts, presumed to be open, would want to bury an important legal decision with far-reaching impact for police, prosecutors, citizens and media.
“Releasing the decision would help Vermonters better understand how the court interpreted the newly enacted reporter’s shield law and it would provide the transparency needed to oversee the state’s judicial system,” said Silverman.
The courts made the right decision for WCAX in the first place. Now we hope they choose to be open about it.