WatchSonoma Watch

Touring the courthouse grounds with Judge Chouteau

In response to our editorial criticism of a new court order banning protests and group prayer near entrances to the Sonoma County courthouse, President Judge Rene Chouteau called on Tuesday and invited us to take a tour of the courthouse grounds with him.

Jim Sweeney, Staff Writer Paul Payne and I met him over there this morning.

He, along with Court Executive Officer José Guillén, walked the grounds with us, showing us where the new 25-foot ban would extend. On the north side of the courthouse, it prohibits demonstrations near where jurors enter the building. It leaves a substantial area of space for demonstrating in the courtyard between the courthouse and the jail, but the rules would prohibit any large group activities on the west side approach to the courtyard and entrances. It also would prohibit protests up to the steps on the south side of the Hall of Justice. The sidewalk area and a stretch of courtyard before the steps would still be available for public demonstrations.

“We are keeping the avenues of free expression open,” Chouteau said, but he noted he still feels strongly that “a court is not a free speech forum.”

Judge Ken Gnoss, who joined us in Chouteau’s chambers before the tour, emphasized that this was not Chouteau’s directive. He said this was a process that had been going on for two years and was reviewed and adopted by the court’s executive committee before Chouteau put his signature to it.

“Judge Chouteau did not come up with this on his own,” Gnoss said.

The rule change started out as a clothing policy that sheriff’s deputies had encouraged them to adopt. But they said it evolved into an order focused on protecting jurors from being unduly influenced by large groups of people.

Court officials say they’ve had cases where individuals were passing out fliers in an attempt to influence jurors. “That is a very serious issue for us,” Chouteau said. “It’s not just (jury) nullification” that’s concerning, he said. “It is also putting pressure on jurors to decide issues in a certain way.”

“We are hoping to get jurors away from that type of environment.”

He said the intent of the rules is to allow free speech but prevent activity that would impede judicial proceedings. “We are trying to draw a balanced line,” Chouteau said.

Guillen confirmed that the new rules were modeled after those adopted by courts in Los Angeles, which have withstood legal challenges.

The tour left me somewhat encouraged that the rules still leave a fair amount of space for public protests to occur within earshot of the courthouse. But I’m still left wondering why rules that set out to focus on inappropriate clothing had to end up infringing on historic venues of free speech.

The judges had legitimate concerns about jurors being hounded on break and the influence of gang members on judicial proceedings. But from what I can gather, none of them could point to a single problematic demonstration that warranted pushing protests 25 feet from any entrance.

On the positive side, Chouteau said he wanted to hear from the public and that the rules would be up for review – and possible tweaking – after six months, if not earlier. It seems reducing the court’s red zone from 25 feet to 10 feet would be a place to start the tweaking. At the least it would be a step in the right direction, by giving the public their courthouse steps back.

- Paul Gullixson


7 Responses to “Touring the courthouse grounds with Judge Chouteau”

  1. Juvenal451 says:

    Next proponents of Free Speech will want to attend trials, making statements as they wish and distributing pamphlets advocating for particular findings by jurors. This ban is good and necessary.

  2. Originalst says:

    Sonoma county rulings have been shown to federal courts as being unconstitutional, in violation of both state and federal laws, and in response our judges claim immunity as does the state. Federal judges who under our constitution are to invalidate all illegal rulings by states rarely do much of anything.
    The entire system is corrupt and until the people by majority vote within a jurisdiction can remove a judge and this unconstitutional theory of immunity for corrupt judges is ended, there will continue to be a lack of justice here!

  3. Emerson Burkett says:

    So, when does “The Honorable” Judge Chouteau come up for re-election? His decree is a violation of our Constitutional rights. No instances of any real harm being done in the past; What is the rush to shut us up?

  4. Michael Koepf says:

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    September 6, 2013 at 9:12 am

    “A court is not a free speech forum.” Judge Chouteau. “The Press Democrat is not a free speech forum:” Paul Gullixson. When it comes to free speech, it’s a clear that the editors of this paper do not practice what they preach.

  5. observer says:

    Presiding Judge. That rings a bell.

    Presides over the Grand Jury, too, doesn’t he?

    –that body of philosopher kings who rendered up a masterstroke of finger wagging on fluoridation (http://sonoma.courts.ca.gov/sites/all/assets/pdfs/general-info/grand-jury/2012-2013/FinalReport.pdf)
    in honor of their public mission as “Watchdog” . . . “Ombuds Agency” . . . “Forum of Last Resort”; while
    somehow avoiding the larger question: how did the County of Sonoma become one of the most corrupt counties in the state? How did we overspend on pensions by a billion? Underspend on roads by a billion? Authorize a no-public-purpose-is-served billion dollar blank check on Sonoma Clean Power while the County’s incumbent low cost provider—Healdsburg/NCPA—wasn’t even cited in the feasibility study?

  6. Michael Koepf says:

    “A court is not a free speech forum.” Judge Chouteau.The Press Democrat is not a free speech forum: Paul Gullixson. When it comes to free speech, it’s a clear and proven fact that the editors of this paper do not practice what they preach.

  7. Kirstin says:

    PD, Judge Chouteau must have some judicial overseer. Who, or what entity, is it? The judge (through these rules that have been in the making for two years) is needlessly restricting freedom of expression. As the above article notes, there have been no instances where any real harm has been done in the past. And even if there were, it is not appropriate for a place of justice to seek to impede the legitimate and constitutional speech rights of the people. So, either, the judge repeals this unreasonable rule, or I (and I’m sure others) would like to object to the person or persons who has judicial authority over him. Please tell us who that is.