Judge agrees to address Morris hearing issues

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

After a motion was filed by a lawyer representing local newspapers, a Supreme Court-appointed judge has agreed to set an earlier court date to address media issues that first arose when journalists were barred from attending a pre-trial hearing for State Delegate Rick Morris (R-64th).

Attorney Johan Conrod filed a motion Thursday that a court date for the media access issues resulting from the ban be scheduled prior to the upcoming criminal trial for Morris, which is currently set for May 18-19. Judge Louis Lerner, who had previously indicated that he would not be able to hear the media access issues until after the criminal trial, then communicated through Suffolk Criminal Court Administrator Ed Davis that he would hear the concerns in court Monday, May 15.

Morris, who represents parts of Isle of Wight and Suffolk, is charged with two counts of child cruelty and two counts of assault and battery of a family member. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Moments before Morris’ pre-trial hearing on Dec. 15, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Robert S. Brewbaker Jr. issued an order prohibiting journalists from being present in the courtroom or covering the hearing, “on the grounds that the key witness in the charges is a child,” in this case, Morris’ stepson.

The Daily Press, Virginian-Pilot and The Smithfield Times appealed the order to the Circuit Court and filed a motion that the transcripts of the preliminary hearing, during which six of seven felony charges against Morris were dropped, be made available.

The motion to speed up the court date was filed after Davis informed Conrod via email that Lerner, the judge appointed by the Supreme Court to hear the media access case, was unable to do so prior to Morris’ criminal trial.

The motion then asked that a new judge be assigned to the hearing, arguing the importance of addressing the access issues and obtaining the transcripts before the criminal trial takes place.

“Scheduling such a hearing prior to the [Morris’] criminal trial will promote judicial efficiency and also serve the First Amendment and constitutional interests at stake here,” the motion for an earlier court date states. “Indeed, while the criminal proceedings involving any citizen are matters of public interest, this trial, and the preliminary hearing, involved a member of the General Assembly.”

The motion is also seeking information pertaining to access to Morris’ upcoming criminal trial in Suffolk Circuit Court, “in an effort to avoid the access issues that arose for the first time on the day of the preliminary hearing.”

Morris announced in March that he will not be seeking reelection.

Brewbaker retired in January.  {/mprestriction}