A hearing last month before a family court has raised questions about the openness of South Carolina's court system.
The case in question concerned a hearing to determine whether state Rep. Andy Patrick should be held in contempt of court. The Island Packet reported on how it was closed to the public soon after it started, although people in the courtroom said Patrick was not found in contempt.
The media reported on how Family Court Judge Gordon Jenkinson ordered the hearing be private after a motion was made to the court bar the news media from the courtroom, according to Beaufort County Family Court director Vanessa Bryan.
The family court had been deciding whether Patrick should be held in contempt for not paying $4,000 to a lawyer involved in the legislator's divorce case, as he'd been ordered to, the Packet reported.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said the judge's decision to close the hearing could be illegal. He said the public is entitled to a reasonable amount of time to oppose the closure of a proceeding.
"The law is quite clear that closing a hearing is a drastic measure," Bender said in media reports. "The public has a constitutional right to be present. No one had a realistic chance to oppose this closed hearing."
The state's Constitution says as much in Article 1, Section 9: "All courts shall be public ..."
However, the Island Packet report pointed to a number of high-profile cases in Beaufort County in which judges have sealed documents, "sometimes bypassing rules requiring them to consider the public's interest in the documents."
While it is unusual for judges to close off court rooms in South Carolina, it's not unprecedented. In a case in May 2014, a judge closed a courtroom after receiving advice from a deputy sheriff, according to media reports. "The deputy told the judge what he thought the rules were for closing the hearing, but he was mistaken," the Packet report stated.
That report alluded to how reporters were told they had to fill in permission forms of the kind required by photographers and videographers. "You don't need a form to sit there and listen to what's going on," Vanessa Bryan, division chief of Beaufort County Family Court, told the media. "You don't need to fill out a form just to sit in the courtroom."
The move to close a court to the public highlights how complicated legal proceedings can be. At Masella Law we believe in making the legal process as straightforward as it can be for parties who are going through difficult family proceedings such as divorce.
Family law is a complex subject area that is fraught with emotion by its very nature. However, it is important to know that you can find help by coming to a Columbia divorce lawyer at the Masella Law Firm, P.A. We have many years of legal experience, and an attorney from our team is ready to meet to discuss your concerns and educate you about your rights during the
divorce process in South Carolina or any other family matter. Call us at 803.748.9990.