The Great Bend Tribune has filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Kansas seeking to reverse a gag order issued by 20th Judicial District Judge Ron Svaty in a first-degree murder case.
The Kansas Press Association and Kansas Association of Broadcasters have joined the Tribune as petitioners in the order of mandamus filed Friday.
Mandamus is a manner of compelling a public official to perform a clearly defined duty imposed by law. The Kansas Supreme Court has jurisdiction to control the actions of a lower court.
Alejo Villegas, Adam Eugene Suppes and Juventino Villegas, all of Great Bend, face charges of murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated battery and criminal damage to property in connection with the Nov. 15, 2015, shooting death of Aron Villegas in Barton County.
On Jan. 8, Judge Svaty approved a “protective order restricting extrajudicial comments” in the case of Alejo Villegas. He entered the written order around Jan. 20, using wording identical to what Alejo Villegas’s defense attorney, Richard Ney, had proposed.
The Tribune took issue with the order, calling it overly broad and unconstitutional. On behalf of the newspaper, Lawrence media attorney Max Kautsch filed a motion seeking to intervene and have the protective order reversed or set aside. However, this was unsuccessful. Svaty reaffirmed his rulings on Feb. 5.
The gag order bars all participants, including potential witnesses, from making comments or disseminating information to the media and the public until the verdict and sentencing in the case are rendered. It also orders that all courthouse personnel, including court reporters, “shall under no circumstance disclose to any person ... information relating to this case that is not part of the public records of this court,” in absence of “express authorization.”
Tribune Publisher Mary Hoisington said it is good that the Supreme Court will be looking at this.
“This order only harms the public, which needs and deserves to know what happened in this matter. It’s important that this over-reaching gag order be reversed,” she said. “The repercussions of this ruling could have far-ranging ramifications.”
Hoisington noted that the Kansas Press Association and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters joining the cause denotes its importance. “The various media are standing together behind this since we all have something at stake in keeping our court system open to scrutiny.”
The petition for mandamus calls the protective order “vague and overbroad,” saying it unreasonably restricts the news media from doing its job, which is to gather newsworthy information and inform area residents about the underlying facts and prosecution of very serious crimes that allegedly took place in Great Bend.
It notes that examples of constitutional gag orders that balance the interests of a fair trial with the media’s First Amendment rights are readily available to Svaty. In particular, the petition mentions the order issued by 20th Judicial District Judge Hannelore Kitts in the case of Adam Longoria, who murdered a 14-year-old Great Bend girl in 2010.