Editorial Page Editor
First Amendment Cyber-Tribune
TO BANISH A CRITIC
Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, has
a national reputation for First Amendment commentary. His email address is
By CHARLES LEVENDOSKY
c. 2000 Casper
In Vermont, a number of state judges and one federal
judge don't think citizens have the right to attend criminal or civil trials --
at least not those citizens who criticize judges or the decisions they make.
Citizen-reporter Scott Huminski has been summarily barred from Vermont courts
for his criticisms.
His case is a lesson in how those in power, even when
they know they are wrong can subvert constitutional guarantees of
Although Huminski transports antiques for a living, for the past
three years he has been on a crusade watching how his state courts operate. He
attends state court proceedings and then publicizes what he considers misconduct
with posters placed in the windows of his Bennington home and in the windows of
his van. He also distributes information about the proceedings to attorneys and
One of Huminski's posters contained the headline,
"Judge Corsones: Butcher of the Constitution" and beneath it, Huminski listed
five reasons why he made that claim. One of the reasons, Huminski charged was
that Rutland District Court Judge Nancy Corsones "strips defendants of the right
to defense counsel."
That poster resulted in him being banished from "all
lands and property under the control of the Supreme Court and the Commissioner
of Buildings and General Services, including the Rutland District Court, parking
areas, and lands."
Judge M. Patricia Zimmerman of the Rutland District
Court signed this sweeping trespass notice on May 27, 1999. The Bennington
County Sheriff's Department served Huminski with the notice.
Huminski is a gadfly, troubling the plodding steer of state. He may be
bothersome, but he isn't a criminal. He has done nothing illegal. He has only
exercised his rights as a U.S. citizen.
Zimmerman's trespass order is the
third one issued against Huminski, but it is the broadest. The first trespass
notice, issued only days earlier, prohibited Huminski from entering the Rutland
District Court or its parking lot. The second trespass order barred him from
entering Corsones' property.
If Huminski were to even park his van in the
parking lot of a Vermont court, he could be arrested immediately.
trespass notices were filed for one reason only -- Huminski criticized a state
judge and her decisions.
Law enforcement officials make no claim that
Huminski was disruptive, a public nuisance, or interfered with the
administration of justice. He was quiet and attentive while in the courtroom and
the courthouse. He neither picketed
the courthouse, nor engaged in vulgar or
obscene expression while there. He simply posted his opinions.
trespass orders have worked. They have kept a citizen-reporter from engaging in
public debate about his state courts. Huminski has not been close to a Vermont
court for nearly a year. His reporting has been silenced.
Huminski filed a lawsuit in a federal district court against Rutland and
Bennington law enforcement officials claiming they have violated the Vermont
Constitution and his First Amendment rights to attend and report on court
proceedings. He acted as his own attorney. And lost.
On Oct. 20, 1999,
U.S. District Court Judge J.G. Murtha, apparently blinded by Huminski's harsh
criticism of a judge, dismissed his claims. Murtha concluded that Huminski had
"failed to demonstrate a clearly established federal right which the defendants
violated." Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled time and again that
the people have a right to criticize government officials.
decision, Murtha quoted a U.S. Supreme Court case having to do with picketing
near a courthouse -- a very narrow decision that has nothing at all to do the
facts of Huminski's case. No one asserted that Huminski had picketed the Rutland
District Court. He hadn't.
The Vermont Constitution, in Article 13 of its
Declaration of Rights, states: "That the people have a right to freedom of
speech, and of writing and publishing their sentiments, concerning the
transactions of government, and therefore the freedom of the press ought not to
be restrained." How clear can it be? Courtroom proceedings are "transactions of
government." And "the people have a right ... of writing and publishing their
sentiments" concerning those transactions.
Now, Huminski has Robert
Corn-Revere, an experienced and well-respected First Amendment attorney from
Washington, D.C., handling his case. They have filed an appeal with the U.S.
Second Court of Appeals.
According to Corn-Revere, he hopes that his
client gets "a clear statement from the Second Circuit that local governmental
officials don't have the ability to simply exclude people from the courthouses
in the state of Vermont.
"More specifically, we would hope to get a
ruling that eliminates the ability to simply use mechanisms like trespass law to
silence critics of local judges. In short, what we're looking for is a clear
declaration from the Second Circuit involving the fundamental First Amendment
rights that are at stake in this case in the situation we're presented with
These Vermont law enforcement officials and judges have the
astounding gall to seriously think that they can bar a citizen from the state
courts for all time because that citizen criticized a judge. They make no bones
In the briefs filed with the court of appeals, the attorneys
for the sheriff's department, city law enforcement and city officials baldly
state they have such a right.
And they note in their briefs that Huminski
"has never attempted to enter courthouse property since service of the
(trespass) notice, and thus has neither been denied access nor suffered any
criminal sanction." The briefs assert, "Huminski has suffered no actual
The series of events involving Huminski might be worse than a
collusion of arrogance on the part of those in power to silence a
Widespread ignorance of the foundation of liberty upon which this
nation is built -- especially on the part of judges and law enforcement
officials could eventually bring our nation crumbling down -- as if an
earthquake had fractured the structural basis of our constitutional values. An
earthquake of ignorance.
Arrogance or ignorance? That isn't much of a
choice. Either way, Huminski has been unfairly and illegally persecuted by the
power structure in Vermont. The harm he has suffered, all of us share. The
outcome of this case affects us all.