The justices ruled that Vincent Gaughan overstepped his bounds in imposing secrecy on a controversial murder trial involving a Chicago police officer.
In a country founded on the concept of the rule of law, it's unfortunate — but sometimes necessary — to remind those at the apex of the judicial system that the law applies to everyone, including them.
The Illinois Supreme Court issued a useful and timely reminder of that proposition last week when it ordered a Cook County judge to knock off the official secrecy he's imposed on a controversial Chicago murder case.
For months now, Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan has tried to keep a lid on publicity surrounding the upcoming murder trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
He's held hearings with opposing lawyers in the case in his chambers instead of in open court. When Gaughan has conducted hearings in his courtroom, he's banished all observers.
His most controversial action has been to order the circuit clerk's office to direct all filings in the case go directly to him instead of being filed, as the law requires, with the circuit clerk's office, where they would be subject to public scrutiny.
In response to a motion seeking to reverse Gaughan's unprecedented and illegal motions order filed by the news media, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a one-page order directing the judge to cease and desist.
The high court said "all documents and pleadings" must be filed with the clerk's office. If lawyers in the case want to file motions under seal, the high court said, that issue can be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Although Judge Gaughan can be expected to continue to obstruct public scrutiny of the Van Dyke case to whatever extent he can get away with, he'll be making a big mistake. There's already been too much official secrecy, and that's one of the reasons there is so much public anger and suspicion about what's transpired.
For those who don't recall, Van Dyke was charged with murder in connection with a 2014 shooting death of Chicago teenager LaQuan McDonald that appears to be unjustified. The shooting, which was recorded, shows Van Dyke open fire on McDonald as the youth walked in an illegal, but unthreatening, manner on a public street.
For starters, Chicago police officers tried to cover up what occurred. Then, after the video came to the attention of top city officials, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted a second cover-up by settling a lawsuit with McDonald's family that involved keeping the controversy — and the video of the shooting — out of public view.
Emanual was able to keep the video secret long enough to be re-elected. But when it finally became public, there was widespread outrage over what occurred that was followed by a criminal indictment of Van Dyke.
Acting under the guise of trying to ensure a fair trial for Van Dyke — a sound practice — Gaughan appears intent on presiding over secret pre-trial proceedings.
Judges have ample authority to protect a defendant's rights without going to the illegal extremes Gaughan has.
A judge can delay a trial until public anger has abated. He can oversee a lengthy jury selection process to ensure a fair-minded panel. If Gaughan concludes Van Dyke cannot get a fair trial in Cook County, he can move it to a neighboring county where there is less public interest and knowledge of the case.
What he cannot do is try to stifle public interest by operating in secret. Even if he could do so, it would be unwise.
Public interest doesn't abate just because a judge wants it to disappear. Instead, speculation and gossip fill the void left by the absence of accurate news reporting as the case proceeds.
It's far better to keep the legal process open and let the chips fall where they may, particularly given the prior history of this case.
It's extremely disappointing that Gaughan didn't realize the damage he was/is doing with his stubborn policy of secrecy.
It's gratifying that the Supreme Court reminded him that he, too, is subject to the rules surrounding the requirement that the judiciary do its business in public.