Citizens, Sheriff Force County Judge To Withdraw Unconstitutional Order Forbidding Filming In Front Of The Courthouse
from the not-how-the-law-works dept
Judges have plenty of power, especially local judges who can run their jurisdiction as they see fit without fearing too much pushback from higher courts, residents, or area law enforcement.
Judge Steven Privette is the presiding circuit court judge in Howell County, Missouri, home to around 40,000 Missouri residents. Privette is currently facing some controversy of his own making by refusing to recuse himself from a case involving one of his wife’s political opponents.
Here’s the background on that case, as recounted by Tony Messenger for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The appeals court last week issued a “stop order” to Privette, barring him from taking any action in a contempt of court case he filed against Oregon County Circuit Clerk Betty Grooms. The story, laid out in court records, reads like a small-town soap opera, with a judge driven by personal conflicts playing the main character.
The story starts in November 2018, when Grooms, a Republican, won the race for circuit clerk over Alice Bell, a Democrat. Bell was a deputy clerk in the office and continued to work there after she lost the election. Three years later, in November 2021, Bell married Privette, the presiding judge of the 37th Judicial Circuit, which covers Howell, Oregon, Shannon and Carter counties. Privette, a Republican, was first appointed a judge by Gov. Mike Parson in 2018.
Circuit clerks and judges tend to work closely together. Last December, Bell was scheduled to be the court clerk in a civil case in Privette’s courtroom. Because the clerk and judge are married, officials from the Office of Supreme Court Administrator advised Grooms that she should replace Bell on that case with another deputy clerk.
When Grooms tried to do so, Privette said in open court that “he would have the sheriff remove Betty from the courtroom if she insisted on replacing Alice Bell as his courtroom clerk in that pending civil case,” according to court records.
So Grooms stood down.
So, that’s how Privette runs his courthouse. And this is how Privette runs the streets. Judge Privette issued an order, in May of this year, forbidding residents from filming people on the public sidewalk outside of the Howell County courthouse. Since then, citizens have protested the order by violating the order, gathering in groups to film outside of the courthouse.
Obviously, the judge’s order violates the First Amendment. But it is his order and, up until recently, he had law enforcement’s cooperation.
The First Amendment advocates were told by Howell County sheriff’s deputies that if they didn’t stop recording, they’d be hauled before Privette on contempt charges.
“You can’t do that,” said Randle Daily, who posts videos on YouTube under the name Show Me State News. “If we’re on a public sidewalk, that’s our First Amendment right.”
Shortly after Johnson arrived, Daily and another person were handcuffed and taken into court. She was dumbfounded.
“The whole thing was bizarre,” Johnson says. “This can’t actually be happening in 2022.”
Judge Privette didn’t care that his order violated the Constitution. Instead, according to an audio recording of court proceedings, he doubled down, insisting any filming of the public sidewalk, no matter how far away, would violate his order.
“You could use a telescope and take (photos or videos) from a mile away and you would be in contempt of this court’s order,” the judge said, according to audio posted to YouTube.
With the judge unwilling to listen to reason or recognize rights, residents approached Sheriff Brent Campbell. After making their case and requesting public records related to the enforcement of this clearly unlawful order, the Sheriff took matters into his own hands. And that appears to have forced the judge’s hand.
On Sept. 16, the sheriff issued a statement on Facebook saying that he was taking over courthouse security. That day, Privette rescinded his order.
“At the request of the Howell County Sheriff all orders regarding filming in and around the Howell County Courthouse are withdrawn,” says the new order, posted to the door on the front of the courthouse.
Does this mean Judge Privette will be a better judge going forward? Most likely not. What happened here was that the judge suddenly found himself with no one willing to enforce his order. He appears to have forgotten he serves the public and has instead converted his courthouse into a fiefdom. Sooner or later, though, this careless attitude towards personal rights and courtroom ethics will seriously harm Privette’s career. And when it does, he’ll have no one to blame but himself.