Yesterday in Boston, Judge Richard Sinnott had defense lawyer Susan Church arrested and removed from a courtroom as she tried to read case law relevant to her client’s case. This is wildly inappropriate behavior from the judiciary in any circumstance. Even though the judge released her, several hours later, without pursuing contempt charges, the intent and possible effect of threatening to jail a lawyer for doing his or her job is to discourage lawyers from advocating for their clients. The judge told her her didn’t her to turn the hearing “into theater”, then proceeded to perform the great theater of having her taken into custody. Said Church, “[I] sat there wondering if I was going to jail that night, whether I’d be able to see my children at dinner that night, what I was going to do about my work and my clients.” She continued, “My biggest concern is that this doesn’t have a chilling effect for all the other lawyers out there who are fighting the good fight,” via BostonGlobe.com.
The backstory is that Judge Sinnott was already feeling the heat by going against the prosecutor’s decision not to file charges, and refusing to dismiss this and several other cases the prosecution had already decided were not appropriate to be prosecuted related to protesters against the white supremacist “Straight Pride Parade” in Boston last week. So, when Church was citing case law, she was specifically pointing out the legal authority that said the judge had acted illegally in refusing to dismiss the case. Instead of listening to the legal precedent, he had Ms. Church removed. He didn’t like being told what he was doing was wrong, and he responded by arresting the messenger, who bravely persisted in doing her job in the face of threats to advocate for her client.
Since that episode in court, the prosecutor has filed an emergency petition with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to overturn Sinnott’s ruling. DA Rachel Rollins argued that the judge, “ignored the clear and unambiguous constraints placed on the judiciary by the separation of powers.” Church cited a 1991 Supreme Judicial Court case for exactly that proposition. It sounds like the case law will require the decision to be reversed, and the Judge may face discipline for his encounter with Ms. Church. Susan Church is a hero.