Favorite

Above the law, Part II 

Every now and then, the phonies in power tip their hand. That happened, for instance, when Richard Nixon tape-recorded his private conversations, a decision that later allowed the world to learn how far Nixon was from the statesman he pretended to be.

As Seymour Hersh wrote after hearing the tapes: “Pejorative words and phrases dominated... Jews were ‘kikes,' blacks were ‘niggers,' and reporters were ‘press pricks.' ”

What the Arkansas Supreme Court did last week was not nearly so outrageous. Nevertheless, the high court did tip its hand as to its character when it issued an order — that no one had requested — for no higher or necessary purpose than covering its own ass.

Here was the court's dilemma: Its own policies require that records that have not been sealed by a court order are open to the public. Yet, when I asked to see unsealed records relating to the appeals of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., the men popularly known as the West Memphis Three, the court's clerk, Leslie Steen, told me that they were not available because he himself had sealed them.

Steen explained that some parts of Baldwin's appeal had been sealed by retired Circuit Judge David Burnett, and so Steen had taken it upon himself to seal the appeals of all three men in their entirety. When I objected that only courts are authorized to seal records, the clerk replied that he had been sealing records on his own volition for years, that the justices knew he did so, and that they had never objected.

I wrote a column following that conversation in which I criticized the Supreme Court for sanctioning an illegal activity. I also charged that the court was violating the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, as well as its own administrative order regarding the availability of public records.

For a day or two after that, I allowed myself the slim hope that someone from the court would call and say, “We were sorry to read that your request was denied. That was obviously improper. You are welcome to see any records this court has that have not been sealed.”

Silly me. Not only did no call come, but the Arkansas Supreme Court has not publicly acknowledged at all the misuse of authority by its clerk. The body that is charged with the proper operation of this state's courts appears unwilling even to admit error when it occurs within its own walls.

But the court did take a kind of side-winding action. On Oct. 1, it issued an order requiring that Burnett “settle the record” as to which parts of the three men's appeals were sealed and which were not. In an unsigned opinion, the justices wrote that they had been “unable to determine” this matter for themselves.

That, my friends, is bunk, as Justice Paul Danielson — the only justice to dissent from the spurious opinion — politely pointed out. Danielson noted that asking a circuit judge to explain what had been sealed and what hadn't “vastly deviates from the typical procedures of this court.”

“Either the records, or portions thereof, were filed under seal at the circuit level, or they were not,” he wrote. “If the record does not indicate that certain exhibits or pleadings were filed under seal, then it seems clear they were not and are public record.

“It is the duty of the parties involved in a case, not this court, to ensure that certain documents are sealed if that is their intention. To this date, no motion to seal has been filed in our court in any of these cases.”

 Danielson even delicately broached the subject of Steen's presumption that he could seal records at will. “After a case is filed with this court, our clerk is then to determine if that record, or portions therein, were originally sealed by the circuit court. If so, the same will be filed under seal here. The remainder is public record unless subsequently sealed by this court pursuant to a motion.” [Italics mine.]

This is no arcane debate about angels on a pin. Misuse of authority and disingenuous court orders are matters that strike at the very rule of law.  They erode confidence in our courts.

The West Memphis case has become a symbol of that eroding confidence. But it represents only one of the hundreds of serious issues that come before the Arkansas Supreme Court every year. We citizens have a right to expect that our courts will address all of them with integrity — not cynical, self-serving, legalistic legerdemain when, for whatever reason, a court would rather not hold itself to the law. 

Favorite

From the ArkTimes store

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

More by Mara Leveritt

  • Illustrating the governor's message

    Our prisons burst with disparities. Eliminating them will take courage. Let's see if the Arkansas Parole Board can heed the governor's message with one matter currently before it.
    • Dec 3, 2015
  • Mara Leveritt offers governor a symbol for sentencing reform

    Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state needs to get serious about sentencing reform if it is to cope with its exploding prison population.
    • Dec 1, 2015
  • Parole board hears arguments on parole for Tim Howard

    The hard-fought battle over the fate of former death-row inmate Tim Howard intensified on Thursday when John Felts, chairman of the Arkansas Parole Board, held a hearing at Cummins prison to consider Howard’s eligibility for parole.
    • Oct 9, 2015
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Schlafly's influence

    Phyllis Schlafly, mother, attorney and longtime antifeminist, died recently. What Schlafly promoted was not novel or new. Men had been saying that men and women were not equal for years. However, anti-feminism, anti-women language had much more power coming from a woman who professed to be looking out for the good of all women and families.
    • Sep 15, 2016
  • Seven

    The controversy over the Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn just won't go away.
    • Feb 9, 2017
  • Why a change of leadership at the LRSD now?

    Johnny Key's abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew Baker Kurrus' contract as superintendent strikes us as shortsighted, misguided and detrimental to the education of our children and the health of our community.
    • Apr 21, 2016

Most Shared

Latest in Guest Writer

  • Pay attention

    If anyone thinks that a crisis with the Power Ultra Lounge shooting, then he hasn't been paying attention to Little Rock.
    • Jul 20, 2017
  • War reporter

    Ray Moseley: Native Texan. Naturalized Arkansan. Reporter, world traveler, confidant of Queen Elizabeth II.
    • Jun 22, 2017
  • Vote no on school tax

    I have never voted against a school tax in my life, but I will be voting against the debt service millage extension for the Little Rock School District.
    • May 4, 2017
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »

July

S M T W T F S
  1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Another Jesus

    • Sorry, I have never written about Hillary Clinton's "blunders" in Benghazi. Since you call them…

    • on July 25, 2017
  • Re: Another Jesus

    • IBS, were you there in Benghazi to personally witness all of Hillary's blunders like you…

    • on July 23, 2017
  • Re: Another Jesus

    • If God felt it necessary to replace the ten commandments, he could do it like…

    • on July 23, 2017
 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation