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Federal court raps Vermont judges for violating protester's free-speech rights

By staff,
The Associated Press


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Scott Huminski in front of his van outside Vermont District Court in Rutland, Vt., in April 2000.

BENNINGTON, Vt. — A federal judge has suspended orders barring a Vermont man from state court property, saying two state judges retaliated against him because he exercised his constitutional right to free speech.

Scott Huminski, 41, of Bennington, was slapped with no-trespassing orders in May 1999 after criticizing Rutland County District Judge Nancy Corsones.

Judge J. Garvan Murtha of the U.S. District Court for Vermont issued a preliminary injunction on Feb. 27 barring law enforcement personnel from acting on the no-trespass orders, which were issued against Huminski by Corsones and state Judge Patricia Zimmerman.

A self-described citizen-reporter, Huminski was ejected from the Rutland County District Courthouse in May 1999 after displaying posters critical of Corsones on the side of his van. One sign read "Judge Corsones: Butcher of the Constitution" and listed five ways Huminski thought Corsones had violated the Constitution.

Shortly after parking in the courthouse lot, Huminski was approached by sheriff's deputies, who ordered him to remove the placards. But Huminski refused, citing his free-expression rights.

He then entered the courthouse to take notes on the proceedings for a report he planned to write. However, he was soon escorted out of the courtroom by law enforcement officials and served with two notices of trespass, signed by Corsones.

Later that month, Huminski was served with a notice of trespass signed by Zimmerman.

Murtha wrote that by issuing the no-trespass orders, the judges "specifically and unjustifiably retaliated against Huminski because he had exercised his constitutional right to free speech."

The officials' and judges' decision to give Huminski notices of trespass and to eject him from the courthouse was based on their displeasure with his posted opinions, Murtha wrote in the opinion.

Referring to the Supreme Court's 1964 ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Murtha said that because "constitutional protection does not turn upon the truth, popularity, or social utility of the ideas and beliefs which are offered" and because erroneous statements are inevitable in free debate, they "must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space they need to survive."

Huminski's gripe with Corsones began with a long-running battle between Huminski and the Bennington County state's attorney's office and other law enforcement and court personnel. That office had issued obstruction-of-justice charges against Huminski in another case, and Huminski had sued the state's attorney in federal court.

In 1997, Huminski was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice in Bennington County District Court. The charges stemmed from a landlord-tenant dispute Huminski had with a tenant in a Bennington building.

A plea bargain was reached under which the prosecutors agreed to drop the charges in exchange for Huminski paying $100 in court costs and agreeing to drop his federal lawsuit against them.

Huminski's wife later filed suit against the prosecutors in federal court, and the state's attorney's office said this amounted to a violation of the plea agreement by Huminski. The prosecutors moved to reinstate the charges.

Judge Corsones ruled that the charges could be reinstated. That's when Huminski's criticisms of Corsones began. Another district judge, Paul Hudson, later reversed that ruling, saying that bringing the charges against Huminski again would amount to unconstitutional double jeopardy.

The state appealed, and the Vermont Supreme Court eventually ruled in Huminski's favor, agreeing with Hudson that bringing the charges again would be double jeopardy.

After Huminski posted the signs criticizing Corsones and the no-trespass orders were issued, national First Amendment advocacy groups went into an uproar, and the biggest law firm in Washington, D.C., Hogan and Hartson, agreed to represent Huminski at no cost.

Hogan and Hartson partner Robert Corn-Revere said he felt it was important to take the case because Huminski was a "victim of an abuse of the legal system that deprived him of his First Amendment rights."

"If not challenged, the kind of restrictions that were imposed on Huminski, a lone demonstrator, could also be imposed on members of the press who criticize judges," he said. "The legal principles at stake are very important."

Corn-Revere added that Murtha's ruling reinforced the principle that "local governmental officials cannot brush aside the First Amendment whenever they find it to be inconvenient."

Huminski said on March 2 that he was gratified by the federal court's order.

"The ability to accept and take criticism is an important characteristic for a judicial officer," he said. "When they can't take criticism it shows a demeanor that is not appropriate for the bench, I believe."

Huminski says he plans to continue his "reportorial and publishing activities."

"I believe it's important to inform the public concerning the corruption in the courts and the criminal justice system to help effectuate change," he said.

Huminski told the Rutland Herald that he would resume putting posters on his van describing Corsones' "vastly unconstitutional behavior."

"She won't like it, and we'll see what she does this time," he said.

Rutland lawyer Peter Hall, whose firm represents Corsones and Zimmerman, said he would file a motion in U.S. District Court next week asking Murtha to reconsider the preliminary injunction and quickly hold a final hearing on the matter.

Hall said he intended to submit affidavits "that lay out in significant detail that there were a number of valid reasons and concerns based on which the no-trespass order was properly issued." He declined to elaborate on what those reasons and concerns were.


Frequent critic again barred from Vermont courts
No-trespass order against Scott Huminski goes back into effect after federal judge rescinds previous injunction.  07.29.02


Journalist barred from Vermont courts files federal appeal
Self-described citizen-reporter punished for criticizing state judge is asking court to reinstate his lawsuit against a city and several officials.  03.21.00