A federal judge here tonight said a Virginia law that makes it a crime to divulge information concerning state investigations of sitting judges was "unwise" and expressed doubts about its constitutionality.
U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner made his comments as he ruled against two Richmond newspapers who had sought to delay prosecution for publishing stories about the investigation of two area judges. The papers filed suit today, claiming the law violates the First Amendment.
"Warriner said, that "public scrutiny on the conduct of judges should be encouraged," and "As a judge I would certainly have joined the dissent" in the state Supreme Court ruling last month upholding the law.
Warriner will rule on the constitutionality of the statute following future arguments.
Despite his personal misgiving, Warriner denied a request from Richmond Newspapers, Inc., to delay prosecution until the federal case begins. The judge said he could not find the law "patently and flagrantly" unconstitutional, a requirement for such temporary protection. He also said there was "no evidence" of any threat of prosecution of reporters for previous stories they had written. While the newspapers "may be chilled" in their willingness to present the news, the judge said, editorial policy of at least one "has always espoused" compliance with the law.
The state argued that the newspapers were asking Warriner to "take them off the hook."
Each newspaper faces a maximum fine of $1,000, if convicted.