This judge has a lot to learn. City Court Judge Diane Y. Wray on Monday took the extraordinary and uncalled-for step of excluding the public from a felony hearing in the case against Ali Mohamed Mohamud in the brutal killing of his stepson.
The judge acted without good reason and without adequately ensuring that the request to close the hearing was even defensible.
Wray is new to the bench. Until last year, she was a local real estate and housing attorney, without much exposure to the criminal justice system in which she is now performing an important function. That, we suspect, contributed to why she so readily caved in to the request by defense attorney Kevin W. Spitler that she make the proceedings private.
The courts are open for a reason. They are conducting critical public business and the public has a right to know what goes on in them, especially in high-profile cases like the beating death of 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud.
It is true that, like all rights, the public's right to access to the courts has to be balanced against competing interests, in this case, a defendant's right to a fair trial. But that requires forethought, and there is no evidence that Wray made a complete examination of the facts involved.
As District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III noted, that law on closing a courtroom says the "defendant must demonstrate to the court a strong likelihood that evidence relevant and admissible would prejudice the defendant's trial if it were disclosed to potential jurors."
Sedita said he was unaware of any effort to make that case during Monday's hearing. Without it, the courtroom was improperly closed by a judge whose duty is to follow the rules, not make them up as she goes along.
This is not a case that should be used for on-the-job training. A 10-year-old boy was brutally beaten to death last week and his stepfather is charged with the crime. It is a case with intense and legitimate public interest that Wray was duty-bound to consider. She gave that obligation short shrift on Monday.
The next time Wray is asked to close a courtroom -- and it's certainly going to happen -- she needs to remember the totality of her obligations as a judge.
Defense lawyers make these kinds of requests routinely and judges routinely reject them. Just because Wray was acting within her authority to close the courtroom doesn't mean she was acting wisely. Drivers have a right to turn right at a red light, but there are times when they know they shouldn't.
She should know, too, that there are many ways for judges and attorneys to balance a defendant's rights with those of the public. It happens routinely in New York without judges ever taking the extreme step of closing the courtroom doors to the public, and especially doing so in as cavalier a way as occurred in Buffalo City Court on Monday.