Transparency still lacking in county’s Circuit Court

'Call the Tune' by Mike Anthony

By Mike Anthony

We believe most citizens expect proceedings in the St. Louis County Circuit Court to be transparent.

Yet, we’ve learned over the years that’s not exactly the case.

We discovered that many years ago when this newspaper sued the city of Green Park, alleging some violations of the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Act, also known as the Sunshine Law. Imagine our surprise when we arrived to cover a motions hearing at the St. Louis County Courthouse and discovered the motions would be heard in a judge’s chambers — not in open court as we had anticipated.

Instead, our attorney and a former Green Park city attorney met with the judge in his chambers. The irony was not lost on us, as the case involved issues of transparency because we alleged the city had violated the Sunshine Law. The suit was settled once a new group of city officials were elected who pledged to be transparent.

We certainly can understand the need for some cases, such as guardianships, adoptions and custody disputes alleging child abuse, to be conducted in a judge’s chambers. But the alarming trend for attorneys to meet with judges in their chambers for hearings of public interest continues to this day in St. Louis County.

Just consider a recent pretrial conference involving attorneys for the city of Sunset Hills and the embattled Sunset Hills Econo Lodge that was conducted in Circuit Judge Ellen Siwak’s chambers instead of in open court. After the closed-door conference, part of Post-Dispatch reporter Tim O’Neil’s finger was cut off in a door slammed by Sunset Hills City Attorney Robert E. Jones.

The Call’s Gloria Lloyd was present and chronicled the aftermath of the incident with a photograph of O’Neil on a gurney in a hallway of the courthouse. Just imagine our surprise when Lloyd was informed in a letter from Circuit Court Director of Judicial Administration Paul Fox that photography is not allowed in courthouse hallways without prior authorization.

Fox warned in his letter that should any future photography occur, the matter would be referred to the presiding judge “for any action the judge deems appropriate.”

We certainly understand the need for decorum in the courthouse, even in its hallways. But given the unusual circumstances of the situation, we believe Fox and local judges would be better off focusing on increasing transparency instead of reprimanding a reporter for doing her job.