Emporia Municipal Court could not provide any written policy for why several hearings yesterday were closed to the public, a decision that may be unconstitutional.
The hearings involved 36 defendants who were charged with underage drinking that took place at a September house party. Twenty of the defendants were Emporia State students, nine of whom were athletes.
There was no notice of closure of the hearing anywhere, including the municipal court’s website, except for a sign posted on the court’s door. The court confirmed they did not have any written policy guiding the exclusion of people or press from attending hearings, nor is there any plan to create a policy, according to Mike Henderson, court services officer.
Instead, the court has an ad hoc process where the public must send a written request to attend a hearing to Judge Ted Hollembeak two weeks in advance, which is often longer than the time between citation and hearing.
“I can decide whether I want to grant it or not, so there’s a specific procedure you have to go through,” said Hollembeak.
The exclusion of the public and press from these hearings are unconstitutional, according to Max Kautch, a media attorney based in Lawrence, because enforcements and regulations could be inconsistent depending on who wishes to attend any hearing.
“Without a written policy, making decisions about court access is an arbitrary process that may violate the first amendment,” said Kautch.
Representatives of the municipal court could not be reached in time for comment on the unconstitutional charge for the publication of this story.