A personal note on the Noor trial

On Sunday morning I briefly previewed “The trial of Mohammed Noor.” Jury selection is now underway in Hennepin County District Court.

The criminal case has been assigned to Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance. Judge Quaintance and Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson have issued a highly restrictive set of media guidelines for press coverage of the trial. The order has now been amended twice. The court’s second amended order is posted online here.

I first asked for media credentials to attend the trial on March 14. I was advised by a court administrator that they were still sorting out the logistics and advised to keep checking the court’s Noor trial page. All of eight seats had been allotted to the media in two courtrooms. They were spoken for on March 28 within 20 minutes under a process that I have not found spelled out anywhere.

Trying to understand what had happened, I spent all day Monday afternoon emailing with the court official to whom I had applied for press credentials. I was advised that I had failed to apply for press credentials on March 28. We went back and forth in 18 emails. According to him, I needed to resend my March 14 email on March 28. I fail to understand why.

At one point in the afternoon another official lent him a hand. At my request he followed up with a phone call. He conceded that my failure to understand was reasonable. He wanted to be tactful, he said, but he acknowledged that his colleague might (should) have been more clear.

I also wrote Hennepin Country District Court Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson on Monday afternoon in a self-deprecating plea for help. This is what I wrote:

Dear Judge Bernhardson: I am a class of ’79 U Law School alum, a year behind you. I practiced law for 35 years and undertook a second career writing online for the site Power Line (powerlineblog.com). I covered the 2016 federal terrorism case that went to trial against three of the ten charged defendants for our site and for the Weekly Standard, for example.

I wrote Spenser Bickett on March 14 expressing my interest in obtaining press credentials for the Noor trial. He instructed me to check the court’s Noor page for updates on the procedure to obtain a seat. I checked the page every day. I found the orders you co-signed with Judge Quaintance last week. I have read your orders several times. I never saw any procedure set forth. Now I understand I neglected to sign up for email distribution of an announcement that I did not know of and never saw.

I have been exchanging emails this morning with Spenser Bickett (and now Christopherson Kyle) trying to ascertain what happened. I have yet to get there. As far as I am concerned, I applied for a seat on March 14.

Do you have the patience to entertain my issues on this? Something is wrong here. It may be my understanding that is defective, but I don’t really think so. In a long career practicing law, I prided myself on promptly returning phone calls and following court rules/orders.

Thank you for your courtesies and consideration.

Scott W. Johnson
Cell: [omitted]

I have yet to hear back from Judge Bernhardson.

In my preview on Sunday, I also noted that I failed even to comprehend Judge Quaintaince’s order barring the press and the public from whatever bodycam coverage was introduced at trial. The so-called Media Coalition covering the trial (Star Tribune Media Company LLC, CBS Broadcasting Inc., Minnesota Public Radio, TEGNA Inc., and Fox/UTV Holdings, LLC) also fails to understand. Yesterday this Media Coaliton filed a general objection to the court order that interferes with First Amendment newsgathering and reporting activities in the case. The objection includes a memorandum of law. Here it is is. It’s basic.

In the second amended order linked above, the court increased the number of seats available to the press from eight to fifteen. Again I wrote asking for a seat and was advised that they had been distributed to those who applied on March 28. I have had the misfortune of being both too early and too late to get a seat.

The Noor trial has attracted international attention. On Sunday I borrowed the words of the old antiwar left to note that the whole world is watching.

At every step of the way I have contrasted my experience in the Noor case with my experience in the three-week 2016 terrorism trial that I covered on Power Line and in the Weekly Standard. That trial was held in Minnesota federal district court before Judge Michael Davis, who sits a few blocks away from the site of the Noor trial in Hennepin County Government Center. I seriously doubt that anyone in Hennepin County consulted with Judge Davis on trial management or press relations in a big case.

Judge Davis welcomed the press (online sites included). He turned away no one. He authorized the press to use laptops in the courtroom so long as they did not distract the jury. Judges Bernhardson and Quaintance have banned all devices from the vicinity of the Noor trial courtroom.

Judge Davis handed out copies of key exhibits. He assured that those in attendance — press and public — were able to see all the evidence presented by video. At the end of the case he handed out the court’s jury instructions to the press.

Judge Davis enforced compliance with the court’s rules, but the rules afforded maximum liberality. He conveyed the attitude that the press is the public’s eyes and ears. That is what he believes.

For the Hennepin County District Court the Noor trial is amateur hour. To borrow another cliché, they are not ready for prime time. It’s not just me — see the objection/memorandum filed yesterday by the Media Coalition. Someone needs to say it. This is an embarrassment.

UPDATE: Judge Bernhardson called me at 5:00 on Wednesday afternoon. She had verified my complaint. Please see “Apologies from Judge Bernhardson.”

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