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Man fights for right to open courtrooms

BY TONY THORNTON Published: October 12, 2008

photo - David Starkey stands next to a sign on the door to District Judge Dwayne Steidley's courtroom in Rogers County that tells people the public isn't welcome. By Tony Thornton
David Starkey stands next to a sign on the door to District Judge Dwayne Steidley's courtroom in Rogers County that tells people the public isn't welcome. By Tony Thornton
CLAREMORE — They don’t disregard the entire 6th Amendment to the Constitution in Rogers County, David Starkey contends.

Just the most important part.

Starkey has documented several occasions when the public was refused entry into court proceedings, including his own. He said the policy dates to at least 2002.

A sign on District Judge Dwayne Steidley’s courtroom confirms that the public isn’t welcome.

"ONLY DEFENDANTS are allowed in the court room,” the sign states. "Family and friends must stay in the hallway.”

"You’ve gotta ask: ‘Why does he not want people in there?’” said Starkey, who in April 2007 created the Web site He wants an investigation of the local court system.

The closed-door practice isn’t confined to Steidley’s courtroom. Next door, during a criminal docket Wednesday, a sheriff’s deputy said Special Judge Erin Oquin would have to approve any party other than attorneys before entering.

The Rogers County policy left one open government advocate aghast.

"That is unbelievable,” said Joey Senat, past president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma and an associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University.

Steidley, a former state legislator, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.

District Judge Dynda Post, the county’s presiding judge, said she was troubled to learn of the policy and said she didn’t condone it.

She said she ordered Steidley’s sign removed and added, "It won’t go back up.”

Post said she has scheduled a judges’ meeting for this week "to make sure that everybody understands that no one is prohibiting the public from entering a courtroom.”

Closing courts legal in limited instances
Both the Oklahoma Constitution and the 6th Amendment to the U.S.

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Reporter turned away
The sheriff’s deputy stood guard just inside the courtroom door as 10 attorneys lined up to see Special Judge Erin Oquin.

Although it was a normal criminal arraignment docket, no defendants were in the small court-room.

The door hadn’t shut behind me before the deputy, whose name badge read "Handley,” asked his first question.

"Are you an attorney?” he asked.

"No,” I answered.

He then asked whether I was a friend or relative of a defendant.

"No,” I said.

I intentionally didn’t mention I was a reporter, because I didn’t want preferential treatment.

"You’re going to have to wait outside,” Deputy Handley said.

"It’s because of the space constraints. … It wouldn’t be fair to say you can come in but someone else can’t,” he said.

The courtroom’s gallery section, which appeared capable of holding 15 people, was empty but for one man.

Outside the court-room, 50 people waited in the hallways. The deputy said for some dockets, the number can reach 300.

Once I identified myself as a newspaper reporter, the deputy said he wasn’t authorized to comment about the courtroom policy. Judge Oquin said the same.

By Tony Thornton,

Staff Writer


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