Press lawyers ask state Supreme Court to lift judge’s seal on Van Dyke documents

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Jason Van Dyke at a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in December 2017. | Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/pool photo

Lawyers for a group of Chicago media organizations want the Illinois Supreme Court to lift the “decorum order” issued by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughn that has kept dozens of documents in Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial out of the public eye.

Gaughn’s order “seeks to eviscerate the First Amendment,” according to the motion filed Friday by seven media outlets, including the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The public and press have effectively been stripped of their right to access and inspect the judicial documents filed in a criminal prosecution of high public interest,” the motion states.

Under Gaughn’s order, filings in the case are kept sealed in his courtroom rather than in the clerk’s office, preventing the public or press from viewing them as they can for most other cases. Additionally, Van Dyke’s attorneys and prosecutors are prevented from discussing the case publicly.

The judge has approved only about a dozen of the more than 100 filings in the case to be revealed publicly, leading critics to question the secrecy surrounding the white Chicago Police officer’s trial for the 2014 shooting death of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

“This goes far beyond what is necessary to protect the important interest of Defendant’s fair trial rights, or any other potentially compelling interests here,” the press lawyers wrote in Friday’s motion. “What Respondent has done is extraordinary, and the need for [Supreme Court] intervention is clear. The importance of this case to the community cannot be overstated. The public must know that justice is being done, no matter what the outcome of the trial.”

Such “decorum orders” — Gaughan chastises attorneys who refer to them as “gag orders” — are somewhat exceptional at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, but Gaughan has made them a hallmark of his handling of high-profile cases.

Hearings in the Van Dyke case also almost always begin with Gaughan bringing the attorneys in the case into his chambers for an “informal case management conference,” off-the-record sessions which can last an hour or more. When attorneys return to the courtroom, Gaughan appoints one of the attorneys who was in chambers to read what amounts to brief meeting minutes into the record.

Gaughn is pushing for Van Dyke’s trial to start this summer, though defense attorneys are seeking a change of venue.

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