A state court jury today imposed the maximum fine of $2,000 on the company tha publishes Richmond's two daily newspapers for printing stories reporting that two state judges were being investigated for alleged misconduct.
The company, Richmond Newspapers, Inc., was charged under a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to divulge the proceedings of the Virginia Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission.
The Virginia Supreme Court, in a 6-to-1 decision, recently ruled that the law is constitutional. It upheld the conviction of Landmark Communications, Inc., publisher of the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot, for printing a story about a complaint filed with the commission against a Norfolk judge.
Attorneys for Landmark argued unsuccessfully that the state law violates the free press guarantees of the Virginia and U.S. constitutions. Lawyers for Richmond Newspapers made the same argument before Circuit Court Judge James B. Wilkinson, but said he was bound by the Virginia Supreme Court ruling.
Lawyers for Landmark have said they will appeal the Norfolk case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Alexander Welford, attorney for Richmond Newspapers, said after today's tril that no decision has yet been made on an appeal of the Richmond case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Richmond Newspapers recently sought a federal court restraining order barring enforcement of the law by the state, but U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner refused to grant one.
Warriner, considered to be a conservative judge, commented from the banch that the Virginia statute is "certainly unconsitutional." However, he said U.S. Supreme Court rulings require him to find a state statute "flagrantly and patently" unconstitutional before he can restrain prosecution. He said that Virginia Supreme Court decision made it impossible to make than finding.
Richmond Newspapers was charged for publishing stories about investigations of judges in the Jan. 29 Richmond Times-Dispatch and the March 28 Richmond News-Leader. The Times-Dispatch reported that former Richmond General District Court Judge Harold C. Maurice was being investigated for alleged misconduct. Maurice retired in December as a result of the plea bargaining with federal prosecutors investigating sales of guns under court control.
The News Leader reported that Henrico County General District Court Judge H. Ratcliffe Turner was under investigation by the Inquiry and Review Commission because of a compalint filed by a Richmond lawyer and allegations that Turner may have violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars judges from imposing jail sentences on indigent defendants unable to pay fines.
Robert Baldwin, executive secretary of the commission, testified today that Turner is in fact the subject of an investigation. The investigation of Maurice was officially disclosed recently when the commission filed a formal complaint against him with the Virginia Supreme Court.
There was no dispute over the facts in today's case. The defense, however, put on evidence and made motions attacking the constitutionality of the statute and laying a basis for appeal. Welford moved for an acquittal on grounds the statute applied only to those with access to commission records. Baldwin had testified that the newspaper did not have such access. Wilkinson called Welford's motion an "interesting point," but overruled it.
Two defense witnesses testified out of the presence of the jury that stories about Turner had no apparent effect on the administration of justice in Henrico County.One witness was James C. Roberts, president of the Richmond Bar Association and a subsitute District Court judge in Henrico. The other was Henrico Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Robert C. Bodie.
Their testimony was intended to show that such stories pose no "clear and present danger" to a legitimate state interest, in this case, the administration of justice. The "clear and present danger" test is a fudamental standard for judging whether a law that abridges rights is constitutional.
Even before today's verdict, it was clear tht the prosecution of the Richmond Newspapers has had a chilling effect on news coverage here. Sources at the papers have said that additional stories about the progress of the investigation of Turner have been withheld because of the threat of prosecution.