Credit: (Illustration by Greg Houston)

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About a month ago, I attended the court hearing of a 16-year-old boy who was shot by U.S. Marshals. He was charged as an adult on one traffic offense, which this hearing concerned. Even when they involve juveniles, adult cases are open to the public.

But as soon as I got in the room, public defender Matthew Mazur began hyperventilating. The hearing was no longer about the shooting victim, who now has long white scars on his neck from exploratory surgery. It was no longer about why two uniformed men shot an unarmed boy on a poor block four times. It was not even about setting a date for the next hearing, which was the business at hand. It was about me. Mazur wanted me out, out, out, and he wouldn’t let up on the judge, who kept trying to calm him.

This was the first time a lawyer with the D.C. Public Defender Service messed with me.

The second time was on March 13. I went to a hearing about a man who was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital, the city’s primary mental-health facility, after setting fire to a building in the ’70s. The man got sick from being treated with too much lithium, and he was recovering in the ICU at Georgetown University Hospital. I wanted to find out why no one had been watching his lithium levels.

But again, the PDS got spooked. Citing the confidentiality of mental health records, public defender Laura Rose prevailed on the judge to kick me out. I spent a good half-hour waiting outside the courtroom, enough time to get tired of watching cops flirt with young women. Then the door opened. Would it be the clerk telling me I could come back in the room? No, it was Rose. Here’s our conversation, as I recall it:

Rose: Would you please tell me why this is a story?

Me: Well, here’s a guy who was acquitted of arson because he’s insane, and that’s already, you know, an interesting story in itself, then it looks like he’s dying from lithium poisoning, so maybe there’s malpractice, and Georgetown doesn’t want him, and St. E’s doesn’t want him back. That’s a story.

Rose: How do you know St. Elizabeths doesn’t want him?

Me: That’s in the filings.

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Rose: You read the filings?

Then she was off to complain to the judge about that.

Defense lawyers often try their cases in the papers; they want reporters on their side, nodding, empathetic, in touch with the plights of their clients. Often that amounts to cynical manipulation, but downright antagonism is just as thick an obstacle to the truth.

I’m not the only one to get this treatment, either. Around Superior Court, it’s common knowledge that as soon as a reporter walks into certain hearings, a public defender will protest. Henri Cauvin, who covers the D.C. courthouse for the Washington Post, says the PDS has never tried to expel him from an adult hearing. But with juvenile hearings, which a reporter can ask permission to attend, he expects them to put up a fight.

“PDS has been very aggressive about trying to keep me out of juvenile hearings,” Cauvin says. “In my four years, I think, they have become more aggressive in trying to keep us out.” The pressure increased in 2004, when another Post reporter identified a 14-year-old who was charged with murder. It took months before any judge let Cauvin into another juvenile hearing. “Whether that emboldened PDS or made PDS think they have to be more protective of their clients…no one has ever told me that, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

No PDS employee would comment for this story, so I can’t say what the official line is. But it isn’t always to protest. The Washington Post reported in 2004 on a D.C. Court of Appeals case in which the PDS stood up for sunshine:

[T]he D.C. Public Defender Service… complained about an “endemic” disregard for “the public’s right of access” to proceedings. The public defender service recently found that almost 200 D.C. Superior Court cases are entirely under seal, along with an unknown number sealed to varying degrees.

The agency called this number of sealed cases a “routine and flagrant” offense to the First Amendment. I didn’t get it at first: Why would an agency argue for public access when it is known for trying to get the public’s eyes away? Then I read the third paragraph:

The Public Defender Service turned to the appeals court after a D.C. Superior Court judge ejected one of its lawyers from a recent hearing without an explanation or an opportunity to challenge the decision.

So it’s just pragmatism: PDS lawyers are happy to show the press the courtroom door, but when one of their own is ejected, they are all over that First Amendment.