Less than 24 hours before a court order would have required five Seattle media companies to turn over unpublished protest photos and videos to police, the state Supreme Court has granted them a temporary respite.
A Washington state Supreme Court commissioner on Thursday postponed a King County judge’s order that would have required The Seattle Times and local television stations KIRO, KING, KOMO and KCPQ, to comply with a Seattle police subpoena by handing over photos and video taken during racial injustice protests.
Instead, Commissioner Michael E. Johnston agreed with the news companies’ motion for an emergency stay while the high court considers the media groups’ appeal of King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee’s July 31 order, The Seattle Times reported.
“On balance, I am not persuaded that the potential harm to SPD (Seattle Police Department) outweighs the potential harm to the news media,” Johnston wrote in his ruling.
Lee had given the news companies until Aug. 21 to produce to his court their unpublished images from a 90-minute period when protests turned chaotic in downtown Seattle on May 30.
Last month, the Seattle Police Department contended it was at a standstill in its investigation of arson and thefts that day, leading detectives to seek and obtain a subpoena for the images. Investigators say the images could help identify people who torched five Seattle Police Department vehicles and stole two police guns from police vehicles during the mayhem.
The news groups countered that Washington’s so-called “shield law” protected the images from disclosure. As in most states, journalists in Washington are shielded from law enforcement subpoenas except under limited circumstances. The laws are an extension of the First Amendment, meant to guard against government interference in news gathering.
Lee, a former King County prosecutor, ruled that the rare public safety concerns of the case overrode the shield law’s protections, subjecting the news photos and video to the subpoena. Under his order, Lee or a special master of his choosing would have screened the media images privately to decide whether any should be turned over to police.
The ruling drew criticism from First Amendment groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, press organizations and members of the Seattle City Council, who asked City Attorney Pete Holmes to drop the subpoena. Seattle police officials, however, have defended the subpoena as necessary to solve the investigation and retrieve the weapons, which remain missing.
On Aug. 11, the news groups appealed directly to the Supreme Court, asking the panel to halt enforcement of the subpoena until the court resolved the news groups’ contentions that Lee erred in his ruling.
“The equities favor the news media, though I am deeply mindful of the public safety concerns attendant to stolen police firearms and intentional destruction of law enforcement vehicles and other property,” Johnston wrote.
The Supreme Court will decide at “the earliest opportunity as to whether to retain the (media companies’) appeal or refer it to the Court of Appeals,” Johnston’s ruling stated.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear oral arguments early next week in a lawsuit seeking to block Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order.
The justices ruled 6-1 to accept the case and scheduled oral arguments for Tuesday morning via video conference. The arguments are expected to last at least 90 minutes.
The ruling said the court will consider whether the order was really an administrative rule and whether Palm was within her rights to issue it unilaterally. Even if the order doesn’t qualify as a rule, the court said it will still weigh whether Palm exceeded her authority by “closing all ‘nonessential’ businesses, ordering all Wisconsin persons to stay home, and forbidding all “nonessential’ travel.’”
Conservatives hold a 5-2 majority on the court. Liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet cast the lone dissenting vote. The ruling didn’t include any explanation from her.
Evers initially issued the stay-at-home order in March. It was supposed to expire on April 24 but state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm extended it until May 26 at Evers’ direction.
The order closed schools, shuttered nonessential businesses, limited the size of social gatherings and prohibits nonessential travel. The governor has said the order is designed to slow the virus’ spread, but Republicans have grown impatient with the prohibitions, saying they’re crushing the economy.
Republican legislators filed a lawsuit directly with the conservative-controlled Supreme Court last month challenging the extension. They have argued that the order is really an administrative rule, and Palm should have submitted it to the Legislature for approval before issuing it.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to the states, an outcome that could help efforts to rein in police seizure of property from criminal suspects.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court's opinion in favor of Tyson Timbs, of Marion, Indiana. Police seized Timbs' $40,000 Land Rover when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin.
Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines "out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence" because fines are a source of revenue. The 85-year-old justice missed arguments last month following lung cancer surgery, but returned to the bench on Tuesday.
Timbs pleaded guilty, but faced no prison time. The biggest loss was the Land Rover he bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died.
Timbs still has to win one more round in court before he gets his vehicle back, but that seems to be a formality. A judge ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana's top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.
The case drew interest from liberal groups concerned about police abuses and conservative organizations opposed to excessive regulation. Timbs was represented by the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice.
"The decision is an important first step for curtailing the potential for abuse that we see in civil forfeiture nationwide," said Sam Gedge, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice.
Law enforcement authorities have dramatically increased their use of civil forfeiture in recent decades. When law enforcement seizes the property of people accused of crimes, the proceeds from its sale often go directly to the agency that took it, the law firm said in written arguments in support of Timbs.
Congo's constitutional court is poised to rule on a challenge to the presidential election, with the government on Friday dismissing an unprecedented request by the African Union continental body to delay releasing the final results because of "serious doubts" about the vote.
Upholding the official results could spark new violence in a country hoping for its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. At least 34 people have been killed since provisional results were released on Jan. 10, the United Nations said.
The AU on Monday will send a high-level delegation to Congo to address the crisis in the vast Central African nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones and electric cars around the world. Its neighbors are concerned that unrest could spill across borders.
Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende called the matter one for the country's judicial bodies, and "the independence of our judiciary is no problem."
The declared runner-up in the Dec. 30 election, Martin Fayulu, has requested a recount, alleging fraud. He asserts that Congo's electoral commission published provisional results wildly different from those obtained at polling stations.
Fayulu welcomed the AU's stance and urged Congolese to support it.
Congo faces the extraordinary accusation of an election allegedly rigged in favor of the opposition. Fayulu's supporters have asserted that outgoing President Joseph Kabila made a backroom deal with the declared winner, Felix Tshisekedi, when the ruling party's candidate did poorly.