BRATTLEBORO -- On Friday morning, Judge John Wesley granted the Brattleboro Reformer's request for documents related to an involuntary commitment hearing on Jan. 25.
In making his decision, Wesley, a family division judge in Vermont Superior Court, concluded that the public has a right to know what statements were made by the person who was the subject to the hearing. Those statements eventually led to local school districts implementing precautionary security measures, which in turn aroused concern in the community for the safety of its school children.
"In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, in a time where we're debating the relationships nationwide, and in the state, between the access to guns (and) the adequacy of mental health interventions, and the relationship between allegedly inadequate mental health interventions and the possibility of increased public danger because of guns, it can't be seriously suggested that these aren't matters of public interest," said Wesley.
The court clerk denied the initial request to obtain the documents, but the Reformer appealed, and Wesley scheduled the Friday morning hearing to hear the appeal.
Reformer Day Editor Bob Audette represented the newspaper, arguing that access to those documents was in the public's best interest.
He also argued it was in the court's best interest to be transparent about the decision-making process behind its ruling not to authorize
John McCullough represented the Mental Health Law Project and had represented the person in the involuntary commitment hearings.
Before Audette had a chance to present the Reformer's case, McCullough attempted to strike Audette's appearance, noting that he wasn't an attorney. In Vermont, he said, an attorney needs to represent the interests of a corporation, such as the Reformer.
McCullough also asked the judge to deny the Reformer's request without an appeal hearing.
But Wesley responded that he believed McCullough had misinterpreted state statutes, and that under a four-pronged test defining who could present testimony, Audette was qualified to represent the Reformer.
"I feel relatively confident that I can express our opinion and why it's in the public's interest," Audette told the court.
He then was granted time to recount the background of the heightened security measures that were implemented in schools around the region.
Audette cited case law that he believed supported the Reformer's request for the court documents, as well as the First Amendment and its guarantees of freedom of the press.
Prior to issuing his final decision, Wesley intimated that once full disclosure has been made, the public will realize there is no link between the alleged threats and the school districts' reactions.
"It will be interesting with retrospective inquiry," said Wesley, "whether anybody can actually find anything that draws that link. However, there are indisputably aspects of (the) case that implicate the public concerns that Mr. Audette linked up."
The alleged threats had been made to loved ones of the person in question and had to do with "self harm, the possibility of using firearms and the possibility that others might be at risk beyond statement of self harm," he said.
Wesley also brought up larger issues, suggesting that by releasing the requested documents, there could be scrutiny and analysis that would helpful in examining mental health issues in Brattleboro and Vermont.
McCullough asked that if the court granted the Reformer's request, the documents be redacted, so that the name of the patient would only be indicated by initials and that any other information that would identify the patient be removed.
He also requested a 30-day stay on the decision to give him and his client the opportunity to make an appeal.
Audette said he would understand the redaction, but did not think it was in the best interest of the public. He opposed any removal of information, saying it might be necessary to determine if the person in question has any prior criminal history. Without the name, that investigation would be impossible, he noted.
Audette told the judge that the Reformer has a policy of not printing the names of people with mental illness who are subject to judicial proceedings and saw no reason why it would alter the policy for this particular case.
Wesley said he appreciated the Reformer's policy, but that policy doesn't hold true for all media outlets in Vermont.
Audette also objected to McCullough's request for a 30-day stay of the release of documents to give him time to file an appeal.
"We would like the documentation as soon as reasonably possible. This has been going on for far too long, and people have a right to know," Audette said.
Wesley not only declined to redact the person's name, he reduced the duration of the stay from 30 to 10 days.
"This will give me a chance to talk to (the client)," said McCullough after the hearing. "And see what we want to do with the case."
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.