EDITORIAL: Clark County District Judge Richard Scotti oversteps his bounds in autopsy report case

Nevadans elect their judges, but every few years a proposal arises to abandon that approach for an appointment process. Supporters of the latter argue that it would minimize the politics involved and breed a more grounded, independent judiciary. Maybe, maybe not.

But there are also myriad reasons to defend the current system, not the least of which is the accountability inherent in the electoral system. Allowing voters to hold judges responsible for their decisions on the bench provides a vital check on judicial power.

Take Clark County District Judge Richard Scotti, who was elected in 2014.

On Friday, Judge Scotti ruled that the autopsy report of Las Vegas police officer Charleston Hartfield, who was killed in the Oct. 1 Strip massacre, was not a public document. The case was brought by Mr. Hartfield’s widow. Judge Scotti ruled that privacy concerns should prevail. The decision is highly questionable, given that Nevada statutes don’t exempt such documents from the state public records law.

In addition, the ruling contradicts another local judge’s recent conclusion in a separate case that autopsy reports must be available for scrutiny in service to the vital concept of government transparency. Mr. Hartfield’s autopsy had been released in the wake of that decision.

But Judge Scotti went even further than simply issuing a dubious finding in a public records case. He also ordered the Review-Journal and The Associated Press to destroy their copies of the coroner’s findings regarding Mr. Hartfield and to refrain from reporting further details on the results. He then suggested that an official with the coroner’s office be allowed to rummage through the RJ or AP files in search of the document in question.

Judge Scotti attended the well-regarded Hastings College of Law at UC-San Francisco. Did he snore through classes on basic constitutional law? Setting aside the debate over whether the right to privacy trumps the public’s right to know when it comes to autopsy results, the judge’s orders are patently outrageous.

Is Judge Scotti wholly unfamiliar with the First Amendment and the doctrine of prior restraint? A judiciary that dictates what a publication may or may not disseminate — barring legitimate national security issues — has disemboweled the concept of press freedom and embraced censorship as a tool of state oppression.

Judge Scotti’s decision is unconstitutional on its face. The Review-Journal has launched an expedited appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. Yes, the newspaper has an obvious self-interest here. But the judge’s actions transcend the issue of open records and raise important questions regarding freedom of expression in a democratic republic.

Judge Scotti let his sympathies overwhelm his legal judgment, leading him to ignore state law, long-established precedent and the Bill of Rights. That’s something Clark County voters who value the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment should remember if the judge seeks re-election come 2020.

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