Duval County Court Judge Russell Healey. Photo courtesy of The Florida-Times Union.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Judicial ethics and public records laws were the focus of a 1st District Court of Appeals hearing today in Tallahassee.
Lawyers for First Coast News and our news partner The Florida Times-Union asked the three-judge appellate panel to reverse a local judge's decision to withhold public records in the Michael Dunn trial.
Dunn is charged with first degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, a former Wolfson High School Student. Dunn, who is white, is accused of shooting Davis, who is African-American, after a dispute over loud music. Dunn has pleaded not guilty.
While awaiting trial at the Duval County Jail, Dunn has written some racially inflammatory letters -- some of which have gone viral. That prompted Duval County Judge Russell Healey to clamp down on future discovery related releases, until he can review them.
RELATED: Read Michael Dunn's jail letters here.
Lawyers representing local media asked the three-judge panel to reverse Healey, saying any delay -- including the judge's proposed 30-day review -- wasn't permitted by state public records laws.
"As a result of this order everything is being filed under seal," Holland & Knight attorney George Gabel told the court. "I think it's fair to say that almost nothing in regards to public records is working in this case."
Gabel noted that Judge Healey ordered the clampdown on his own -- without receiving a request from either State Attorney Angela Corey or Dunn's defense attorney, Corey Strolla. Gabel further argued that any public records restrictions should be evidence-based, so that a higher court could, if necessary, review them.
Assistant Attorney General Tricia Meggs Pate countered that extensive pretrial publicity justified Healey's order. "The rights of public access have to yield to the rights of a fair trial," she argued.
First DCA Judge Brad Thomas appeared to agree. "[Healey] has a responsibility to ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial, and he has a responsibility [to act] if he feels pretrial publicity is threatening that..."
But Judge Thomas agreed the delay was problematic. "With no chance for petitioners to contest [the sealing of records] for 30 days, and the trial's in February -- that's almost a per se sealing of discovery prior to trial."
Lawyers also raised concerns about an October meeting among Healey, Strolla and Corey, which occurred immediately before the formal hearing on the public records matter.
A transcript ordered by the 1st DCA in advance of Tuesday's hearing shows some 30 pages of discussion, much of it regarding Healey's order, which occurred outside of the courtroom, and before the formal hearing began. Attorneys representing media were not told of the meeting, nor allowed to be present or make arguments.
Instead, the judge and attorneys discuss at length the need to clamp down on the release of public records. "I think it's very damaging ... to have the media give so much exposure to a case," Corey told the judge, according to the transcript. "...We are asking that you control it."
According to the transcript, the judge tries to anticipate what arguments he might hear from media attorneys. "One thing I think they may argue a little bit is a stuck my nose it before anybody else did," he mused. But "I'm not worried about that. I feel good about being on solid ground being able to do that."
There is no mention of this exchange when the group moves to the courtroom and formal hearing on the motion begins.
Today in court, Gabel expressed serious concerns about the transcribed meeting. "As I understand judicial conduct, he should have told us about that when we came into the courtroom, that they had this conversation -- shouldn't have had the conversation in the first place."
First DCA Judge Scott Makar pressed for more information. "When did you first know about that conversation?"
"When we got the transcript," Gabel replied. "I was shocked."
Makar later added, "I do find it disturbing ...I don't know how to characterize it. It's just disturbing there was this pre-hearing without the interested subjects being present."
State Attorney Corey declined through a spokesperson to comment on today's proceedings. Judge Healey did not return a call for comment.
The court did not indicate when it will issue a decision.
Will the Michael Dunn trial be another Stand Your Ground showdown?
First Coast News