A judge criticized by First Amendment experts for restricting media coverage of a Standish attorney’s domestic assault case is reopening the proceeding to hold another hearing Wednesday.
On Monday, District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz had told members of the media at the Cumberland County Courthouse that they were forbidden from reporting anything the defendant, attorney Anthony J. Sineni III, said in court or any of the witness testimony.
The Portland Press Herald defied the gag order Tuesday, publishing a story about the hearing that included witness testimony. Later in the day, Moskowitz asked the media and lawyers involved in Sineni’s case to return to the court for another hearing at 11 a.m. Wednesday, said Sally Bourget, head clerk at the courthouse.
First Amendment experts and media groups had decried the judge’s gag order, calling it unlawful.
“This pre-publication censorship is a strike to the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about its court system and those accused of crimes,” Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said in a written statement. “It is extremely concerning that a judge of this stature would disregard such fundamental First Amendment protections in issuing this order.”
Silverman, a Massachusetts attorney, said that cases in which a judge issues such orders are rare and “almost never upheld.”
“They are not common, but they do happen. I think when you have a judge speaking specifically to reporters, those particular facts are very rare,” he said.
Silverman cited the Pentagon Papers case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stop The New York Times from publishing classified documents that detailed American involvement in the Vietnam War.
It was not immediately clear why Moskowitz scheduled Wednesday’s hearing or what it would be about. By Moskowitz’s order, Sineni’s case file remains under seal and is not available to the public.
A spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch, Mary Ann Lynch, denied the Portland Press Herald’s request Tuesday for an interview with Moskowitz. She also denied requests to speak with Moskowitz’s direct supervisor, Chief District Court Judge Charles LaVerdiere, or Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who heads the state’s courts.
“It’s still a pending case, so that would put it under the judicial code of ethics requiring judges to abstain from public comment on pending matters,” Lynch said.
When Moskowitz issued his order Monday, he addressed both a reporter from the Press Herald and a television crew from WCSH-TV. Executives at both news outlets condemned the judge’s actions in statements Tuesday.
“Judge Moskowitz’s attempt at censoring news coverage of an open court proceeding is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. That this case involves a prominent attorney accused of domestic violence makes the judge’s order even more egregious,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Press Herald.
“It is our belief, policy and profound obligation to defend First Amendment rights wherever they are being violated in Maine. Regardless of who is violating them,” said WCSH News Director Mike Redding. “We are certain anything said in an open court is public record and reporting it is protected by the United States Constitution.”
Monday’s session was a plea hearing and sentencing, during which Sineni did not admit any wrongdoing but acknowledged there was enough evidence to find him guilty on charges of assault and disorderly conduct.
In exchange for the plea, one misdemeanor count of domestic violence assault was dismissed against Sineni for allegedly attacking his ex-girlfriend, along with three felony counts of witness tampering and a felony count of possession of a stolen gun or guns.
Moskowitz sentenced Sineni to what is called a deferred disposition on the assault charge and the disorderly conduct charge. After one year, the disorderly conduct charge could be dismissed if Sineni stays out of trouble. After two years, the assault charge could be dismissed or Sineni could enter another plea to that charge or a lesser charge. The exact language of the sentence was never stated in court, and the written sentencing agreement also has been ordered sealed.
Winona Hichborn, Sineni’s 34-year-old ex-girlfriend with whom he has three children, was the only witness who spoke during the court hearing. It was her testimony, in which she described her 11-year relationship with Sineni and claims of domestic abuse, that the judge ordered the media not to report.
The domestic assault charge against Sineni that was dismissed was for allegedly striking Hichborn. The assault charge for which he was sentenced was for allegedly striking her male friend, according to Hichborn’s testimony.
“Tony (Sineni) told me before that he is above the law and that if he gets away with this they won’t be able to touch him,” Hichborn testified Monday.
Jim Burke, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said it’s a concern that Moskowitz didn’t give a reason for issuing the order to stop the media from reporting Hichborn’s testimony.
“If a judge is inclined to make a criminal hearing private, I believe that they should make a complete record of that so it can be revisited at a higher level,” Burke said. “If it is believed that the judge committed an error, that is what the appellate court is for.
“I cannot think of a valid reason why this shouldn’t be public. I’m just at a loss of how this could happen,” Burke said.
Bernie Lunzer, president of the international Newspaper Guild-Communication Workers of America, called the judge’s conduct “truly outrageous.”
“Judge Moskowitz decided that sparing a fellow member of the bar further embarrassment trumped the First Amendment. He wasn’t just speaking to journalists. He was telling citizens they had no right to know what happened in his courtroom,” Lunzer said in a written statement. “If he didn’t understand how wrong that is and that this country, with extremely rare exception, doesn’t hold court in private, he has no business being on the bench.”
Lynch, the Judicial Branch spokeswoman, said Moskowitz and Sineni are not personal friends and have had no financial relationships.
Before being appointed as a judge seven years ago, Moskowitz worked as an assistant district attorney in York County, where he occasionally had cases with Sineni as lawyers on opposing sides, Lynch said.
“Attorney Sineni is frequently at the Cumberland County Courthouse, and has probably appeared before every trial judge in the building, so every judge in the courthouse has had some proceeding in which Mr. Sineni has made an appearance. This is the case, as well, for Judge Moskowitz,” she said.
Sineni has 30 days to report his sentence to the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, according to the board executive director, Jacqueline Rogers.
“It’s a matter that’s under investigation by our office,” said Rogers, whose office brings disciplinary actions against attorneys, up to and including disbarment.