The Ohio Supreme Court has ordered the Beacon Journal Publishing Co. and a reporter to file a written explanation about why the reporter should not be held in contempt for declining to testify in an Akron Bar Association disciplinary case against one of its attorneys.
In a 4-3 ruling announced Friday, the high court ordered the newspaper and reporter Phil Trexler to respond within five days or be held in contempt.
The issue involves comments made by an Akron attorney, Larry Shenise, in a February 2012 Beacon Journal news story by Trexler, headlined: “Massillon man, 80, ends up in Summit County lockup after police find he was wanted for missing civil hearing he says he did not know was ordered.”
Common Pleas Judge Paul Gallagher signed an arrest warrant for the man after he missed a scheduled hearing in a civil court case.
Shenise, who was handling the suit for the elderly man and his son, told the newspaper that no one from Gallagher’s court notified him about the hearing by mail or phone.
“I don’t miss hearings if I get notice,” Shenise was quoted as saying in the Beacon Journal story. “If we would have known, we would have been there. But they never bothered to call to say: ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be here for a hearing. We’re going to issue warrants for your clients if you don’t appear.’ ’’
Gallagher then filed a bar disciplinary complaint against Shenise, who claimed he was misquoted in the 2012 story.
The bar pressed the case against Shenise, and issued a subpoena to Trexler to testify in a hearing on the issue.
Beacon Journal attorneys offered an affidavit in which Trexler said he accurately reported Shenise’s comments, but the bar subpoena was not withdrawn.
A refusal by the high court’s disciplinary board to quash that subpoena led to Friday’s ruling.
Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who wrote the dissenting opinion, called the potential contempt order a “pointless act.”
Even if Shenise said every word attributed to him in the newspaper story, “those statements are not evidence of any misconduct on his behalf,” Pfeifer wrote.
By issuing Friday’s order, Pfeifer said: “This court now joins in the overkill in this matter, which started with Judge Paul Gallagher issuing an arrest warrant on Shenise’s 80-year-old client …”
Pfeifer concluded by saying: “This whole matter has led to a tremendous waste of resources on all levels. Exerting the judiciary’s authority over the press is a significant matter, and that power should be employed as sparingly as possible, and certainly never in circumstances as trivial as these.”
Beacon Journal attorney Karen C. Lefton said the high court action was an important matter, because there is no standard in Ohio establishing when a journalist can be compelled to testify in a quasi-judicial or administrative proceeding such as a bar disciplinary hearing.
“There is huge potential for abuse of the press if no standard is established,” Lefton said, adding that the newspaper is in agreement with Pfeifer’s dissent.
Lefton said she was working on a response to the high court’s order and would file it with the court clerk early next week.
The bar, according to the high court, then would have two days to file any response.