York County's top judge weighs in on district judge closing public hearing

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

York County's top judge has spoken with a York City district judge for barring reporters from a public arraignment of a criminal defendant.

"The President Judge has been in communication with the magisterial district judge to discuss the matter," said Stacey Witalec, communications director for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

President Judge Joseph C. Adams confirmed that he has communicated with District Judge Linda Williams about it.

"I believe arraignments are open, subject to limited situations that may justify limiting access," Adams told The York Dispatch.

"As a general matter, the existence of COVID-19 alone does not justify the closure of proceedings that otherwise must be open to the public, though safety considerations may require limiting the nature and extent of public access," Witalec said.

Williams did not return a phone message seeking comment. The longtime district judge presides over criminal, traffic, nontraffic and minor civil matters in the east end of York City, as well as landlord-tenant issues.

The office of Magisterial District Judge Linda Williams office, 1285 E. Princess St. in York City.

Legal expert: "The preliminary arraignment should have been public, and if the MDJ had concerns about COVID, remote access should have been facilitated," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

"Preliminary arraignments are routinely public procedures where the court addresses a number of important aspects of a criminal case," she said, including setting bail.

District judges are expressly permitted to conduct such proceedings remotely, according to Melewsky, meaning through Zoom or a similar video-conferencing service.

"The courts recognize public access is critical to the judicial process for a number of reasons," she said, noting that it promotes an understanding of the judicial system; promotes fairness; serves as a check on corrupt practices by exposing the judicial process to public scrutiny; enhances the performance of all involved; and discourages perjury.

"As a presumptively public proceeding, MDJs do not have the authority to close the proceeding," Melewsky said. "Public access to judicial proceedings can only be limited if there is a compelling interest shown on the record, and any limits on public access must be narrowly construed in order to be consistent with the Constitution."

Only "courts of record," meaning county common pleas courts and appellate courts, can make an on-the-record determination on good cause to limit public access, she said.

The background: York Dispatch reporter Logan Hullinger and a York Daily Record reporter went to Williams' 1285 E. Princess St. office on Sept. 9 for the 2 p.m. preliminary arraignment of Mike Cleveland.

Cleveland — the former general manager at the York City Ice Arena — is charged with felony and misdemeanor theft counts for allegedly stealing nearly $23,000 from the ice rink between 2014 and 2017, according to charging documents.

At the close of the 50-year-old's arraignment, Williams released him on his own recognizance rather than setting a monetary bail amount.

Prior to the start of the arraignment, Williams refused to let the two newspaper reporters attend the proceeding.

"When we argued that these arraignments are public and we have the right to be ... present, she offered two arguments," Hullinger said.

The first was that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn't have to let them into the proceeding and could, in fact, kick them out of the building entirely, the reporter said.

The second was that the proceeding was an arraignment and not a hearing, so it didn't have to be public, Hullinger recounted. But Adams, Witalec and Melewsky all confirmed arraignments are public proceedings.

"After the hearing, we asked if Williams would come back out and talk to us (about closing the hearing)," Hullinger said, but Williams declined through one of her staff members.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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