Contempt case won’t die

By: Joe Strupp

Santa Cruz, Calif. newspaper waits for final ruling

When a judge slapped a contempt-of-court charge on the Santa Cruz County (Calif.) Sentinel last month for publishing details of a supposedly confidential juvenile court case, editor Tom Honig thought the issue would be resolved quickly once it was proven that the story had caused no harm.
Indeed, the paper eventually showed that the story about Mark Mendez and Rhonda Mastropaolo, published June 24, had not hurt their efforts to get custody of their infant child after Santa Cruz County officials placed the baby in foster care.
In hearings after the filing of the civil contempt charges, the county Child Protective Services agency and its governing body, the county Board of Supervisors, each urged the court to drop the charges against the newspaper, one of its reporters, and Mendez, contending that the newspaper had not affected the custody case.
The final proof came two weeks ago when the parents regained custody of the infant.
But that has not stopped the court’s efforts to see its contempt charge through.
“I really am displeased with the kind of justice we have been getting in this case,” says Honig. “This is what we feared.”
It now seems that the contempt charges, first issued July 9, will not be resolved until at least Sept. 22, the date of the next hearing. On that day, the court will consider a request from the Sentinel to have Superior Court Judge John Stevens removed from the case.
“The whole contempt proceeding is stayed until this is decided,” says court spokesman Alex Calvo.
Gallagher says he requested that Stevens be removed after Stevens admitted at a previous hearing that he had spoken to Judge Kathleen Akao, a juvenile court judge who had overseen the infant custody case and filed the original contempt charges. Since Akao is a potential witness in the contempt case, Gallagher believes Stevens acted improperly by talking to her.
The Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury News each filed motions Aug. 3 for the proceedings to be opened to the press and public, but Stevens has not acted on the requests, and they are not expected to be addressed until after the next hearing.
(Editor & Publisher [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 21, 1999) [Caption]

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