The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an important — and apparently needed — reminder to this state’s judges: They don’t get to pick which constitutional rights they like best. All of them should be afforded equal weight, at least to begin with.
The court ruled Henry County Common Pleas Judge Keith P. Muehlfeld issued a “patently unconstitutional” gag order. The ruling itself is welcome. That a unanimous court issued it is even better. While it’s frightening a county judge can be so confused about basic rights, the Ohio Supreme Court justices left no room for ambiguity.
Muehlfeld issued his gag order in the trial of Jayme Schwenkmeyer, 24. She faces involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment charges in the 2007 drug overdose death of her 13-month-old daughter, Kamryn Gerken. A separate trial for Schwenkmeyer’s boyfriend was set for the following week in Muehlfeld’s courtroom.
Muehlfeld decided that reporting on the first trial could taint the jury pool, so he placed the restrictions on the media. He ordered that, while reporters were allowed in the courtroom with the general public, they could not publish or broadcast what happened until after the court had a jury for the second trial.
The (Toledo) Blade sued. The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled 6-0 (in the absence of the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer) that Muehlfeld erred.
“Judge Muehlfeld’s analysis proceeded from the erroneous premise that a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial should be accorded priority over the media’s constitutional rights of free speech and press,” according to the high court’s opinion. U.S. and Ohio Supreme Court precedent is that a court’s first duty is to try to protect both rights, not to start by deciding between them, The Blade reported. “The judge’s refusal to accord equal importance and priority to the media’s First Amendment rights was thus plainly erroneous.”
Muehlfeld’s concern is understandable, but he addressed the issue in the wrong way. People have a right to know what happens in the courtroom — as it happens, not well after the fact. Media reporting remains the best way for most people to follow governmental happenings. Shutting out the media until after the trial shuts out the public that employs Muehlfeld.
The Ohio Supreme Court thankfully corrected Muehlfeld’s mistake.