The South Dakota Supreme Court correctly found that Seventh Circuit Judge Jack Delaney erred in closing court proceedings to the public and media. The case was brought by the Rapid City Journal, South Dakota Newspaper Association and the Associated Press. Read the Journal's account here.
Attorneys for the family that owns Bear Country said information regarding the value of the tourism business was proprietary and should not be made public. Delaney agreed and closed the proceedings. However, the reason the family was in court was because they could not settle the matter privately and in suing each other got the courts involved. The courts are the public and the public has a right to know the goings on in our courtrooms.
This was a good decision by the Supremes. The Journal, the Newspaper Association and the Associated Press are to be congratulated for pursuing the matter even after the original case was decided. The Supreme Court decision now sets a precedent and puts other judges on notice that closing court proceedings cannot be done without proper reason and the proper findings to support a decision to close.
The Bear Country case is not the first time Judge Delaney has stirred the First Amendment pot. (please excuse the pun). Delaney included a one-year gag order on the Forum's own Bob Newland in sentencing him for marijuana possession. Newland has been a vocal advocate of legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Delaney, in his sentence, forbade Newland from being a public advocate for medical marijuana.
It should be noted here that Delaney said the reason he issued the gag order was to send a message to kids, claiming "juvenile courts are packed with kids who have drug problems." To my knowledge, Newland has never advocated for the recreational use of marijuana by juveniles. And yet, Mr. Newland was prevented for a year from discussing a topic about which he is passionate.
Of course, Mr. Newland is not in the same financial position as the Journal, The Associated Press and the South Dakota Newspaper Association. He could not afford to make a Supreme Court challenge to Judge Delaney's trampling of his First Amendment Rights.
I should also say here that I think Judge Delaney is a good and decent man and aside from these two specific instances, I believe him to be a good judge. We shall hope that in the future, he will think carefully before he restricts anyone's First Amendment rights.