Balancing Courtroom Safety and Free Expression: Huminski V. Corsones*

Article excerpt

In the current era of heightened anxiety over terrorism, and against the background of recent examples of the murder of the mother and husband of a federal judge and the murder of a Georgia state court judge in his courtroom, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently was called upon to rule in a case involving the assertion of First Amendment rights against a claim of official and judicial sovereignty set against the backdrop of a fear of a threat to Vermont state court judges. Huminski v. Corsones, 396 F.3d 53 (2nd Cir. 2005).

The case began in February 1997, when Scott Huminski was charged in the Bennington, Vermont, District Court with two counts of obstruction of justice for, among other things, allegedly seeking to silence a witness against him in a civil action. Judge Nancy Corsones was assigned to preside in the case, and initially approved a plea agreement between the state and Huminski. However, the state then moved to vacate the plea agreement and reinstate the charges against Huminski, and Judge Corsones approved the state's motion.

Thereafter, Huminski began a campaign against Judge Corsones and the state judicial system by filing complaints against Judge Corsones with Vermont's Judicial Conduct Board and sending letters of complaint to various state officials about the lack of justice in the Vermont judicial system. Although Judge Corsones was not specifically mentioned in those letters, and a state investigation concluded that the letters were just an exhibition of frustration and not intended to inflict harm on anyone, Judge Corsones and the Bennington District Court staff interpreted them as threats to the judge, her family, and the entire Vermont court system.

More than six months later, when Judge Corsones was presiding in the Rutland District Court, approximately fifty-five miles north of Bennington, Huminski parked his van in a legal parking space at the courthouse to publicize the "oppressive and unconstitutional conduct" of Judge Corsones. On each side of the van, Huminski displayed large signs accusing Judge Corsones, among other things, of being a "Butcher of the Constitution." Although the signs were on three sides of the van, the inside of the van was observable at all times.

The Rutland County sheriff, R. J. Elrick, and his department were under contract to provide security for the Rutland County Courthouse. Two members of the sheriff's department saw the van and the signs and asked their supervisor if the signs violated the law but were told they did not. Even so, the deputies asked Huminski to remove the signs or move his van. He refused. In the meantime, Judge Corsones arrived at the courthouse and entered through an employee-only side entrance. She was told that signs on the van called her a butcher, that Huminski was illegally parked on the other side, that he had been asked to move, and that no one could see inside the van.

Alarmed by this information, and in view of bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City and other domestic terror activity, Judge Corsones was unwilling to preside in court because of these perceived threats to her personal safety. She asked Karen Predom, the manager of the Rutland District Court, whether a "Notice Against Trespass" could be served on Huminski. Predom, who had responsibility for maintaining security at the court, and who had tracked Huminski about, apprised the court system's director of court security of the situation and agreed to issue a notice for the courthouse, and Corsones requested one of the deputies to issue a parallel notice covering her residence and former law office. Sheriff Elrick, a Rutland police officer, and Rutland District Court judge Nancy Zimmerman executed the notice, and the sheriff and a deputy served the notice on Huminski in a court conference room. Huminski refused to acknowledge service, but he did peacefully leave the premises.

After another series of trespass notices, Huminski sued Judges Corsones and Zimmerman, the sheriff, the deputies, and Predom in United States District Court, claiming a deprivation of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and asking for a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction, and monetary damages. …