The Crusader Newspaper Group

State Supreme Court orders judge in Laquan McDonald case to stop sealing every filing

By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

The Illinois State Supreme Court has ordered a Chicago judge in the Laquan McDonald case to stop the practice of routing every court filing directly to his chambers.

The move is in response to an appeal from news organizations covering the pre-trial hearings of Officer Jason Van Dyke.

In a one-page decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan, accusing him of “patently unconstitutional conduct” for not allowing court files to be seen by the public.

Gaughan, 76, has taken extraordinary measures to control the release of information, citing his concern for Van Dyke’s right to a fair trial. He has “gagged” lawyers and anyone remotely connected to the case from speaking publicly about it. Gaughan has repeatedly held lengthy, closed-door meetings in chambers with lawyers and in the past month has twice cleared the courtroom of reporters and spectators to hear arguments and testimony.

The ruling is a win for Chicago-area media covering the pre-trial proceedings of Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is charged with first degree murder for shooting McDonald 16 times in 2014. Dashcam video of the shooting contradicted police reports that said McDonald lunged at the officers with a knife in his hand. Van Dyke was charged 13 months after a Cook County judge ordered the release of the video that was suppressed by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Van Dyke’s pre-trial hearings have been going on for two years. Gaughan has come under criticism from several newspapers, television and radio stations, which together made an unprecedented move by filing an appeal with the state’s highest court rather than the appellate court.

“If the media lack any meaningful access to the court file in the weeks and months leading up to and including the trial, their ability to inform the public about this case will be irreparably stymied,” the news organizations argued in the May 11 filing.

By suppressing every court filing, Gaughan “has flipped the First Amendment and common law presumptions of public access,” the news media motion said.

“This goes far beyond what is necessary to protect the important interest of Defendant’s fair trial rights,” the filing said. “What (Gaughan) has done is extraordinary, and the need for this Court’s intervention is clear. The importance of this case to the community cannot be overstated.”

It was not clear from the order if Gaughan must unseal any of the dozens of filings he has kept hidden from the public. Gaughan is pushing for Van Dyke’s trial to take place this summer, perhaps as early as July, according to the filing.

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