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CityWatch: Murdaugh trial judge stands up for the law — and up to the lawyers

A breath of fresh air streamed through the South Carolina court system last week when Circuit Judge Clifton Newman quickly and firmly rejected the attempt by defense attorneys and the state Attorney General’s office to potentially hide evidence and arguments from the public in the upcoming trial of alleged murderer/swindler/thief Alex Murdaugh.

The Post and Courier reported that the lawyers asked the judge “to issue a breathtaking gag order that covered all evidence and to let the parties seal all their motions, subject to their own motions to unseal them.”

In other words, the attorneys — not the judge — would decide what evidence and which motions would be heard in the case. You just can’t make this stuff up.

The significance of Newman’s ruling on the proposed gag order is both very real and very welcome, as our courts and court proceedings must be directed by judges, not prosecution and defense lawyers acting like they are judges. The arrogance of some attorneys in trying to run the show and the acquiescence of some judges in allowing it is antithetical to what a trial is supposed to be in our system of justice.

And what exactly is that? I’ll quote Judge Newman, who stated it perfectly when he said: “I want this clearly understood. It’s a public matter, it’s a public trial.”

Speaking specifically to procedure, he added: "I want it clear that we will not have any private motion hearings. Public matters will be public.”

Lawyers making demands for private motion hearings and the like are not used to having their heads handed to them in court by circuit judges in South Carolina. Especially not lawyer-legislators like Murdaugh attorney and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian.

You see, legislators elect those judges. And then must re-elect them every six years if they are to continue to serve. South Carolina lawyer-legislators have enormous sway on who gets appointed to, and who remains on, the state bench.

While that built-in conflict of interest for lawyer-legislators should long since have been eliminated from the way South Carolina selects judges, it hasn’t. And don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Bad habits are hard to break.

As for the Attorney General’s office going along with the secrecy request, it was a surprising and disappointing position. Allen Wilson should explain why his office joined with the defense in making it or apologize for doing so. The judge must decide what, if anything, is kept secret — not the attorneys for either side.

In any case, maybe, just maybe, Judge Newman’s ruling that the Murdaugh murder case is “a public matter” and will be “a public trial” will turn the page on a new era of judicial openness and trial transparency in South Carolina.

If so, we will owe that new and long-overdue era to both Judge Newman and the man who appointed him to oversee the Murdaugh case, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bon Beatty.

Clearly, Beatty knew both what he was doing and who he was getting when he tasked Newman with the job. It was a deliberate and inspired choice, one which is already shaking up a state court system much in need of it when it comes to that openness and transparency.

As an aside, I am delighted but not surprised by Judge Newman’s rulings to date in the Murdaugh matters, including his denial of bail to Alex Murdaugh in the financial crimes cases.

Why am I not surprised at these firm and fair rulings? Because Clifton Newman’s uncle was the legendary Columbia civil rights leader, the Rev. I Dequincey Newman.

After decades of much bravery and many achievements in that struggle from the 1950s into the 1980s, Columbia voters elected Rev. Newman the state Senate in 1982. He was the first African-American to hold that office since Reconstruction.

The courage and common sense that Rev. Newman so often showed clearly rubbed off on his nephew. And like his uncle before him, Judge Newman is making us proud.

Let the trial begin.

Kevin Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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