Editorial

Editorial

Letter from the publisher: Justice without trains

web 10 8 LAURA photo

Ojai Valley News Publisher Laura Rearwin Ward

 

Laura Rearwin Ward, Ojai Valley News publisher

A seed planted by this small-town paper’s battle has grown a meaningful result.

After months of work putting pressure on the Los Angeles Superior Court with help from the 1st Amendment Coalition, pro bono legal help from UC Irvine, letters from the ACLU, and my award-winning editorial, “Want justice? Take the train,” the Ojai Valley News achieved temporary remote access to the water-adjudication hearings in the Los Angeles Superior Court from January to June 15. The opening came about when Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor took over at the LA Superior Court in January. Remote access to the media was shut again when the governor opened the state.

 

Since June 15, our reporting access was only achieved by becoming a party in the case.

During 2020, when I explored every channel I could to get public access to the court, I shared the story of the Ojai Valley’s plight with our Assemblymember Steve Bennett. The issue is that more than 14,000 people are being sued by a powerful neighbor with an enormous war chest, and the Ojai Valley News is the only source for all the individuals to learn about the case involving their personal water rights, if they had not retained an attorney.

Assemblymember Bennett reached back to me near the end of 2020, offering to help. He agreed that the attorneys should not become, essentially, a protected class, with the public left outside the court’s proceedings.

 

In 2020, some California Superior Courts were allowing meaningful public access. My count was about 13, which included Ventura County Superior Court. Assemblymember Bennett saw that public access should not be fought county by county (or newspaper by newspaper) and introduced AB 716, which was signed into law Oct. 5. The law now requires courts to provide the public and the media with remote access to hearings, via internet or telephonic services, during open court proceedings.

We appreciate the note that Assemblymember Bennett wrote to the Ojai Valley News after the governor signed the bill:

“Congratulations on proving the system can be changed and demonstrating the value of a free press. Now more than ever, the United States needs the Fourth Estate doing its best work for all of us. Thank you for letting us partner with your visionary effort.”

During the OVN’s day in LA Superior Court in 2020, on an ex parte motion for remote access, Judge William Highberger told our attorney that the OVN was free to take the train 90 miles each way to LA, in what is likely to be a decades-long case, to attend the court in person during a pandemic, while the rest of the attorneys phoned in. Judge Highberger ruled against the OVN with prejudice.

Judge Highberger is now clearly sitting on the wrong side of history, and we’ve achieved some justice without trains.

This is a win for the people of California, sparked by a tiny community newspaper. Please join me and thank Assemblymember Bennett for hearing our little voice that roared. 

With thanks, 

Laura Rearwin Ward, publisher