U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner issued a temporary order today barring the Richmond prosecutor from bringing further charges against the city's two daily newspapers for publishing stories about judges under review by a state commission.
Warriner, who had previously refused to issue such an order, acted today on a request by lawyers for the Richmond Times Dispatch and New Leader, which last week were fined $2,000 in a state court for violating a controversial law making it illegal to disclose the commission's proceedings.
Disagreeing sharply with a 6-to-1 ruling of the Virginia State Supreme Court that upheld the law, Warriner said he believes the newspapers had a constitutional right to publish "what they believe the truth is."
Under state law, proceeding of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission are supposed to remain secret, a requirement that Warriner said may be acceptable for lawyers who participate in the closed hearings. But the judge said he doubted whether the law could be extended to the press. He said there is a "reasonable likelihood" that the state law will be held unconstitutional during later court hearings, although he did not specifically rule on that point today.
"The fundamental question was decided with the adoption of the First Amendment." Warriner said, citing the amendment that contains the guarantees of a free press.
"The people have a right to know how their servants are performing and judges are their servants under the law," he said. "To shield judges from any type of criticism is to create a special class to say that they are above everyone else . . ."