So it wasn't exactly "Law and Order," but it was a kind of people's court on Monday.
There were no cameras (because cameras aren't allowed in federal court) and there weren't any impassioned soliloquies, but U.S. District Court Judge Susan Watters made a small but significant ruling in the higher profile case of Angela Corson Smith who will be sent back to federal prison for 10 months because of 13 probation violations, including that she established a GoFundMe online fund-raiser after her son was born premature, and posed as an Air Force Medic wanting to leave an abusive marriage.
At around 6:50 a.m. Monday, less than three hours before the start of the hearing on the probation violations, Corson Smith's attorney, Marvin McCann, filed a hastily written motion to close the hearing. In other words, shut the public out of knowing what's happening to his client, even though there have been many of Corson Smith's victims in the public.
This last-minute motion could have gone through, but The Billings Gazette noticed and was prepared to object to closure.
Luckily, that was not necessary because Watters made the important and correct decision: Shutting the people out of a United States courtroom (let's repeat that: United States courtroom) was a bad idea. Furthermore, the defense had presented absolutely no basis for closing the hearing, and Watters pointed out criminal court proceedings often have information about medical, mental and personal information. That's the nature of court itself.
We appreciate Watters' decision because it didn't deprive the public from knowing what is happening with Corson Smith who, since her release from the federal Bureau of Prisons, took $250 from her employer in Great Falls before quitting, started an unauthorized GoFundMe campaign, and posed as a former Air Force medic. In other words, the federal judge did not shut out the public when clearly the public was at risk by Corson Smith's freedom.
Kicking the people out would have been incredibly heavy-handed and without merit. After sitting through the court proceedings, we didn't hear information that sounds different from so many other court proceedings. The only reason for closing the court hearing would have been to avoid some of the publicity around this very public case. It appears that it is just another attempt at manipulation by Corson Smith to avoid the public embarrassment of this case. Watters told Corson Smith that she tries to manipulate everyone else, but it will not work with the federal court.
Closing the door would have been to also miss the opportunity to point out that Corson Smith still has restitution of more than $140,000 -- and that means there are people in the area still living with the consequences of her actions who deserve to know what's going on. They were able to know about it because the doors of the court remained open.
We appreciate that our judges -- both at the local and federal level -- have continued to fight to keep the courts open to the public. Moreover, we believe our judges also know that in order for people to have faith in the system, they must see it in action.
We came to court not wanting to fight but being prepared to do so. Instead, the court had already come to the wise conclusion that the bar to closing the court is set by law and precedent extremely high; and, nothing was too special about Corson Smith's circumstances to warrant clearing the court.
For all the flag emblem lapel pins out there and as much as everyone loves talking about the importance of freedom, Watters did the real work of the Constitution when she invoked the First Amendment and said the people of the United States have a place in the courts of the United States, too.
The Billings Gazette