Judge jails defense attorney for arguing too hard

Rollins seeks SJC clarification on prosecutorial powers

Add reciting case law in a Boston courtroom to the list of offenses that can get you thrown in jail.

That’s what happened to defense attorney Susan Church yesterday. Church was quoting from a 1991 ruling that referenced the “long-standing proposition” that the decision not to prosecute a criminal case is “within the discretion of the executive branch of government, free from judicial intervention.”

Boston Municipal Court Judge Richard Sinnott told her she could not read the opinion, gave her a “last warning,” and then, when she kept talking, ordered court officers to take her into custody, the Boston Globe reported. She was handcuffed and jailed for about three hours before Sinnott released her with no charges being filed..

The jailing inflamed an already intense legal dispute arising from the latest clash in the culture wars. Prosecutors working for District Attorney Rachael Rollins had decided not to pursue charges against non-violent protesters who were arrested on Saturday. Sinnott decided he would not allow the prosecutors to drop the charges against seven protesters, one of whom was represented by Church.

Rollins filed a petition with the Supreme Judicial Court, which could settle legal questions about whether Sinnott had any authority to keep the case moving forward when prosecutors wanted to drop it. No matter how that shakes out, there is a deep irony at play, stemming from one of the foundational principles of the nation.

The protesters had been, among other things, exercising their First Amendment rights. The police who arrested them were out protecting free speech principles as well.

The collars were made at the “Straight Pride” parade, a small march whose organizers trolled Bostonians on the route from Copley Square to City Hall Plaza.

The event featured a float trumpeting President Trump on which stood disgraced right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulis and a scattering of other marchers. An enormous police presence accompanied the parade as protesters heckled and chanted from behind barricades.

Up until four years ago, state governments could enforce straight-only marriage laws. It is gay and transgender people, not straight folk, who have been subjected to brutal harassment and persecution because of their sexuality. But the absurdity of the parade’s message was not enough for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to deny it a permit. The First Amendment’s protections of all sorts of speech superseded the mayor’s sensibilities.

“The City of Boston cannot deny a permit based on an organization’s values,” Walsh said in June in a series of tweets explaining how the city would handle the parade organizers. Now Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell wants to review the city’s permitting of public events.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

It calls to mind an episode more than a century ago, when Mayor James Michael Curley convened a hearing to determine whether he should censor the film The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and won the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson, according to a biography by Jack Beatty. Curley felt powerless to ban the racist propaganda film, but he asked the filmmaker to cut a few scenes, which he did before the opening. Then, as recounted in a documentary by Dick Lehr, the African-American activist William Monroe Trotter was beaten and arrested at a screening at the Tremont Theater. On Saturday, the “Straight Pride” parade passed noisily by the site of the former cinema.

All of that serves as a reminder that the freedoms ingrained in the First Amendment are often subject to the politics and vagaries of the day.