Judge accused of holding a closed court

Sunday, March 20th 2005, 11:03 am
By: News On 6

Asher, Okla. (AP)_ An Asher judge is being accused of holding a closed court and blocking a Konowa man's right to watch courtroom proceedings.

David Green said Judge Ralph Zeller conducts court behind closed doors because arraignments are held in the judge's chamber instead of the courtroom.

``I tell you, they got their little system down pat but it needs to be broken into,'' Green said Thursday. ``They're doing it for their privacy. I believe it's a real crooked operation.''

Zeller said that to protect a defendant's privacy, he holds arraignments in the chamber with the court clerk and bailiff.

The judge said he didn't want to respond to the accusations, but said Green is the only one who has a problem with the court's system. He said that by law, he may close the court.

When asked if he'd hold arraignments, which is when a defendant enters a plea, in the courtroom if enough people complained, the judge said Green is the only objector.

``If you don't abide by the court rules, then you have to leave,'' Zeller said. ``Basically, he's been excluded from coming to court. He's the only one that creates any problems.''

Green said he plans on filing a complaint with the state Council of Judicial Complaints. The council investigates accusations and can recommend removal of judges from office to the Court on the Judiciary, according to the Oklahoma Bar Association Web site. The council has jurisdiction on state, municipal and administrative judges.

Green ended up in court, in the town of 419 residents, several years ago after being ticketed for speeding. He was cited in 2002 for driving 53 in a 40 mph zone. When he arrived at court to pay the $110 ticket, he noticed the attendance sheet and the arraignments held in the judge's chamber.

After his court appearance, Green attempted to return to watch court proceedings as he researched whether city police were writing what he considered an excessive number of speeding tickets. But he was turned away because he refused to sign the attendance sheet outside the courtroom, Green said.

He said he won't sign the sheet on principle and believes the requirement is inappropriate.

``A person's supposed to be able to go in and see how their courts and their officials operate,'' Green said.

Zeller said the attendance sheet is used to keep track of who enters and leaves the court in case of an emergency. He said it's also used to protect court visitors' safety.

Court Clerk Rita Bowles said the arraignments have been held in the judge's chamber since at least 1996 and sign-in sheets have been used since that year.

Howard Conyers, administrative director of the state courts, said arraignments usually are closed only under special circumstances, such as juvenile hearings.

``Court rooms should be open,'' he said.

Conyers said his office doesn't oversee municipal courts.

Diane Pedicord, general counsel for the Oklahoma Municipal League, said a judge has the right to discretion in a court. She said if a judge thinks the court's operations are in jeopardy, action can be taken to remedy the problem.

``The general idea is that court is open and people have a right to go and see how court works. But there's also the duty of court to protect its processes,'' Pedicord said.