An attorney for the Akron Beacon Journal filed a timely response to last week’s Ohio Supreme Court order requiring the newspaper to explain why a reporter should not be held in contempt for declining to testify in an Akron Bar Association disciplinary hearing on one of its attorneys.
In a 4-3 decision announced Feb. 7, the high court ordered the newspaper and reporter Phil Trexler to respond within five days.
Attorney Karen C. Lefton did so Tuesday, asking the high court to deny a bar association subpoena to Trexler on the grounds that there is no standard under Ohio law establishing when a journalist can be compelled to testify in an administrative or quasi-judicial proceeding.
“To allow the Bar Association to compel Mr. Trexler to testify in this matter would open the door for administrative or quasi-judicial bodies to drag journalists into their proceedings anytime a news story has been published,” Lefton wrote.
Trexler had responded to the subpoena with a sworn affidavit saying: “I stand by the accuracy of the entire story, both the specific quotations and the general gist of paraphrased portions.”
The issue involves comments attributed to an Akron attorney, Larry Shenise, in a February 2012 story by Trexler.
Shenise, who was handling a civil case for an elderly man in Common Pleas Judge Paul Gallagher’s court, told the newspaper that no one from the court had notified him about a scheduled hearing by mail or by phone.
The judge signed an arrest warrant for the 80-year-old man after he missed the hearing, and he ended up in the county jail for several hours after police discovered the warrant in a traffic stop. The Beacon Journal reported those developments in a front-page news story.
Gallagher then filed a bar disciplinary complaint against Shenise, who later said he was misquoted in the story.
Trexler went on to say in the affidavit that he did not receive any complaints about the story following publication, nor any calls about any inaccuracies in it.
There also were no requests for corrections or clarifications, he stated.
Attorney Robert M. Gippin, who represents the bar, responded Thursday, saying every attorney disciplinary matter is of “significant public importance. False statements disparaging judges violate the [bar’s] Rules of Professional Conduct,” he wrote.
Additionally, when a lawyer disputes the accuracy of reported comments and the reporter is the only witness to them, the reporter’s statement under oath that the story is accurate is essential, Gippin argued.
“If the lawyer insists on his right of cross-examination,” he stated, “the reporter’s live testimony becomes essential and he is subject to subpoena.”
Justice Paul Pfeifer, who wrote the dissent in the high court’s divided opinion, called the subpoena a “pointless act.”
Even if Shenise said every word attributed to him in the story, “those statements are not evidence of any misconduct on his behalf,” Pfeifer stated.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at email@example.com.