ST. LOUIS (AP) — A judge's closed-door dismissal of an indecency charge against an Illinois sheriff who was accused of a sex act with a man outside a tavern may have violated the constitutional rights of openness to reporters, an Illinois Press Association attorney said Wednesday.
Associate St. Clair County (Ill.) Judge Julie Katz dropped the alleged Caseyville ordinance violation against Perry County Sheriff Keith Kellerman on Tuesday after discussing the matter in her chambers with attorneys for both sides.
With at least two reporters waiting for what would have been an open hearing, Katz dismissed the case at the request of Kellerman attorney Thomas Mansfield, who argued that the ordinance didn't specify what constituted indecent conduct, the Belleville News-Democrat reported.
Afterward, Al Paulson — Caseyville's village attorney — told reporters "the court granted that motion, and the case was dismissed," the newspaper said. He added that many of the village's ordinances need to be rewritten, including that relating to indecent conduct.
Efforts by The Associated Press to clarify the matter Wednesday were unsuccessful. Katz, Mansfield, Paulson and the sheriff didn't respond to telephone messages.
Kellerman, 49, and another man, 32-year-old J. Ian Stennett, were arrested in December 2011 after a Caseyville officer alleged he saw them engaging in a sex act in a station wagon outside of an Irish pub in the village, which is near St. Louis.
Stennett, of Collinsville, Ill., later pleaded guilty to the indecency charge and was sentenced to 90 days of court supervision and a $100 fine. Kellerman, who has been sheriff since 1998 and faces re-election next year, has repeatedly ignored requests to comment about the case.
While judges can forbid reporters from covering certain hearings, including cases involving sexually molested children, Tuesday's secrecy appeared unjustified and may amount to an illegal subversion of constitutional rights by the media and the public to witness court proceedings, an Illinois Press Association attorney said.
"Courts have to operate openly, and if you close proceedings you can do so only in limited circumstances and if a judge makes a specific finding in a particular case to justify it," Esther Seitz said. "Here, the judge did not make that type of finding."
Seitz called Kellerman's case "a run-of-the-mill ordinance violation" that didn't warrant excluding the public or reporters, even if the allegations were particularly embarrassing to the sheriff, who has opted to stay in office.
"Obviously, the media would like to report on matters of public significance," Seitz said. "There are a lot of cases that are embarrassing to the defendant. But that's part of going to court, part of being a defendant."