Countywide : Court Asked to Rule on Pretrial Secrecy

The Orange County district attorney asked an appeals court Thursday to rule on whether judges must allow public access to pretrial conferences in criminal cases.

The case pits a Superior Court judge and the county public defender's office against the district attorney and the county's two major newspapers.

The policy dispute began in January, when Judge John J. Ryan took over the criminal-calendar courtroom, where almost all criminal cases are either settled or sent out to trial.

Ryan's predecessor, Judge Myron S. Brown, had prosecutors and defense attorneys meet in an open courtroom and either decide on a guilty plea or schedule a trial. Ryan reversed that and has held the sessions in his chambers without a court reporter.

Ryan has said prosecutors can be more candid in chambers than in open court and has criticized the district attorney's office for making it seem as if nefarious deals are secretly struck.

"It is most inappropriate to suggest to the citizens of this county that this court is not following the law," Ryan has said.

But the district attorney's office, joined by attorneys for the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, argue that the hearings are an important step in a criminal proceeding and should be open to public scrutiny unless the parties show cause why the sessions should be secret.

"We're saying the rule should be that it's open," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade, who is handling the appeal.

Only in exceptional circumstances, where there is reason to be concerned "about the safety of a witness or the safety of the defendant or protection of the identity of an informant, then there should be a closed session," Wade said Thursday.

He is not alleging any improprieties in the private sessions, Wade said, but he added: "I think if those sessions were brought out into open court, the public would be edified."

In legal briefs, the district attorney asked the 4th District Court of Appeal to order Ryan to change his policy or to hear arguments in the case.

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