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Appeals Court Slaps Down Gag Order From Beaufort Judge

Posted June 20, 2007

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— The state Court of Appeals has ruled that a Beaufort County judge had no business imposing a gag order that kept officials from talking to the news media about a lawsuit the county Board of Education filed against the county commissioners in a budget dispute.

The court also took Superior Court Judge William C. Griffin Jr. to task for remarks he made in court about laws and legal decisions being made by people who lack trial experience.

In a decision issued Tuesday, the court said Griffin had no grounds for issuing the order, never filed the paperwork needed for one and didn’t hold the hearing he should have held when WNCT-TV of Greenville appealed the order. Griffin lifted the order after the case went to the jury.

WNCT wanted to talk to people involved in a 2006 lawsuit in which the school board complained that the commissioners under-funded the schools for the 2006-07 budget year. The board also said commissioners based appropriations on “personal demands” stemming from earlier disagreements about spending.

WNCT appealed the gag order, which Griffin had made orally in court, and Griffin said he would consider that. He never decided.

When WNCT’s lawyers told Griffin that a section of state law says a judge has to make a decision on an appeal like that, Griffin asked, “How many trial judges participated in drafting” the law?

“I’m concerned that the parties that make the decisions that impact these processes have never tried a case, have never been in a courtroom,” Griffin said, according to a transcript that the Court of Appeals quoted Tuesday.

WNCT’s lawyers also brought up a 1998 decision case in which the Court of Appeals had ruled that a gag order is unconstitutional unless there’s good evidence that it is needed.

Griffin shot back, “Educate me. Who was on the panel of the Court of Appeals that ruled?”

The lawyers said the three judges had included current state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, now former Judge K. Edward Greene and now former Judge Donald Smith.

In his decision Tuesday for the Court of Appeals, Judge John M. Tyson cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that established in 1884 that lower courts have no choice about obeying rulings from appeals courts, and he added:

“To further ‘educate’ the trial court, both Judge Greene and Judge (now Justice) Timmons-Goodson, in addition to Judge Smith, served long and distinguished terms of service as judges in the trial court division … prior to service on this court.”

Griffin’s questions and his remarks to the TV station’s lawyer, “were irrelevant, repugnant and reflect disdain for both the legislative and judicial processes,” Tyson wrote.

The court’s job, Tyson said, “is to follow the laws."

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