Any time I’ve found myself in a courtroom, I’m reminded just how important it is to have qualified judges who don’t let power and position make them crazy. Jurists should be held to a very, very high standard, because the last thing society needs is judges who either aren’t smart enough to do their jobs well, or ethical enough to do them right. Unfortunately, though, we don’t always get what we need.
I was reminded of this after spending time in Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Clark Stankoski’s courtroom last week witnessing the most ham-handed and ridiculous effort to intimidate a newspaper I’ve seen in 30 years as a journalist. I left the courtroom that morning more than a little concerned about the quality of justice being meted out in Baldwin County.
Stankoski set last Tuesday as the day he would rule on objections related to a slew of subpoenas issued in a civil suit between Paula DiNardi and Ronan McSharry. McSharry, who owns a pub in Fairhope, was criminally convicted this past April of public intoxication and third-degree assault for knocking DiNardi off a barstool in November 2018, and now she’s suing him for damages in circuit court.
So legally this is a lawsuit about whether McSharry hurt DiNardi. Nothing more than that. But McSharry’s lawyer, James Pittman, has been pushing a goofball conspiracy theory that there is a concerted effort by Lagniappe, Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson, blogger Paul Ripp and local attorney Harry Still to damage McSharry’s reputation. That is the reputation of a guy who, in addition to his conviction for assaulting DiNardi, also was on probation at the time for threatening local artist Nall in 2017, and whose ex-wife claims in court records he used to beat her.
How this vast conspiracy affected whether McSharry hurt DiNardi when he knocked her off a barstool has never been clear to me, but Pittman likes to rant about it in court, mostly because DiNardi’s attorney, David McDonald, also represents Lagniappe.
The effort to distract from whether his client hurt Ms. DiNardi or not would be standard legal smoke and mirrors except that late last year Pittman began issuing subpoenas saying he wanted to see “all communications,” written, electronic, verbal or otherwise (smoke signals?) between Lagniappe and McDonald, Wilson, Still, DiNardi, Ripp and attorney Blake Barnes.
Most people are aware the vast majority of what newspapers do involves talking to sources, gathering information and verifying information. Often such information comes from people who don’t want their names used, but we then find documents or on-the-record sources to either substantiate or disprove what we were told.
Because of that, newspapers have special protections — shield laws — both federally and in every state in the union protecting us from having to turn over records to anyone with subpoena power who just wants to know who we’ve been talking to. Without those shield laws, sources would be scared to talk. That would make the corrupt and unethical happy, but would destroy our ability to act as a watchdog for the public.
In fact, I’ve never had a lawyer try this kind of thing — because it wouldn’t fly in almost any other courtroom in America, particularly in a situation in which the newspaper and its coverage has absolutely nothing to do with what the lawsuit is about. But Judge Stankoski’s courtroom is a little different.
It was tense in there to start with. Stankoski’s judicial demeanor was dictatorial, and he snapped at just about everyone in the room except Pittman. He also had no court reporter, which I found strange. But I can understand why he wouldn’t like records of his hearings.
When our attorney explained how newspapers enjoy an absolute privilege against turning over documents without very serious cause, the judge began arguing that he wasn’t so sure we do. He didn’t let Pittman make that point, he made it, so essentially our attorney ended up arguing against Pittman and Stankoski. That also seemed very strange since the judge is supposed to be listening to arguments, not making them for a particular side.
Pittman claimed — without having to offer a shred of evidence in support — that he knew who had been giving us information, so forcing us to turn over a year’s worth of emails and texts wouldn’t reveal any confidential sources. He also told Stankoski we’d reported on the lawsuit the day after it was filed, which was false, but also totally irrelevant since the lawsuit is, after all, a PUBLIC RECORD! Stankoski accepted both of those statements without blinking.
At the end of the day, Stankoski did quash Pittman’s subpoena as it related to information we’ve already published, because Pittman couldn’t show how what he sought was important to the case or that he tried to get it elsewhere — important distinctions when attempting to pierce the shield law. But the judge did rule we should have to turn over any communications about things we haven’t yet written about, if they existed.
And this is where Judge Stankoski’s place on the Mount Rushmore of Baldwin County jurists has been secured.
So now, in his courtroom at least, it’s OK to subpoena media outlets to see who we’ve been talking to if the information hasn’t been used yet in a story. Let that sink in. It’s OK to subpoena information we haven’t used to publish anything.
So let’s say — hypothetically — a confidential source calls and says, “There’s this judge who’s abusing his position to help his buddies,” and we start calling around to ask questions and do research over the next few months. In Stankoski’s view, we would have to worry about being subpoenaed for our interviews before the story was printed.
I can’t believe Judge Stankoski truly thinks the intent of the shield law is to essentially force journalists to race toward publication lest nosy attorneys begin issuing subpoenas. I’d like to think Stankoski just didn’t consider the unintended consequences of this ruling that’s so out of step with what’s been the standard across the state and the country — but I’m not so sure.
You see, Lagniappe has done some reporting on this lawsuit that probably hasn’t made Stankoski happy. We reported the fact that he personally called the judge it was originally assigned to and asked if he could have the suit, which is unusual.
Combine that with the fact he and Pittman used to co-counsel cases together and that Pittman is one of the lawyers Stankoski routinely appoints for indigent defense work and you start to get the feeling they might know each other pretty well.
We’ve also reported on McDonald filing a (writ of) mandamus in the case due to Stankoski ruling on motions, sealing files and issuing orders without having hearings, all of which were in McSharry’s favor. He’s already had to defend these actions to the Supreme Court and hopefully we’ll soon get their reaction to the way he’s handled this lawsuit. It certainly wouldn’t look good if he asked for the case and then improperly issued orders that helped his buddy.
And there’s one other thing. Stankoski’s brother — also an attorney — sent a letter three years ago threatening to sue Lagniappe for covering then-County Commissioner Chris Elliott’s DUI arrest. We reported Elliott’s efforts to use his political position as a means of obtaining a 45-day license suspension instead of the standard 90 days and got a threatening letter, which we published. The bluff didn’t scare anyone, but maybe the judge is taking a shot at us for not kowtowing to his bro.
Whatever his reasons for torturing the boundaries of a personal-injury case in order to weaken press freedoms in Alabama, it appears Judge Stankoski is far too personally vested in any of this to do his job correctly.
One other thing last Tuesday in Judge Stankoski’s courtroom reminded me is just how much the good ol’ boys hate being reported on.
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