Barring reporters from court building during Tom Benson hearing went against court’s policy, spokeswoman says

Security officials went against the policies of the state Supreme Court when they barred reporters from the court’s building in the French Quarter on Thursday during a hearing in a lawsuit between Tom Benson and his relatives, according to a court spokeswoman.

And they went beyond the instructions issued by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal judges hearing the case, who had ordered the courtroom closed, not the entire building.

“It’s a public building unless there’s a known threat to it or we’re closed” for business, said Valerie Willard, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Supreme Court, whose building also houses the appellate court. “Citizens who aren’t a known threat to the court or the judges here are generally permitted in the building.

“Excluding people from the courthouse is not a regular practice and only happened this time as a result of some miscommunication and misunderstanding.”

An attorney with a law firm that represents The New Orleans Advocate in media rights matters called Thursday’s events “concerning.”

Joshua McDiarmid, of the firm Kantrow, Spaht, Weaver and Blitzer, said it was an “unorthodox” move for security personnel to have “arbitrarily barred the press from entering and accessing the courthouse premises in this instance,” particularly when they had no specific orders to do so.

The order signed by Judges Dennis Bagneris, Terri Love and Max Tobias on Thursday morning barred the public only from entering their third-floor courtroom for the Benson hearing.

Neither side in the case requested that the courtroom be closed, Clerk of Court Justin Woods said. The judges were simply extending a similar directive imposed by the Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge who oversaw Benson’s mental competency trial this summer.

Trial Judge Kern Reese issued that order at the request of Benson’s side, citing a desire to protect the 88-year-old billionaire’s medical information.

No order banning the media from entering the Royal Street courthouse was ever handed down Thursday, by either the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, which employs most of the building’s security guards.

Nevertheless, a Supreme Court security officer, after checking with a supervisor, denied one journalist entry into the building ahead of Thursday’s hearing, and he escorted two more who had already passed through a security checkpoint out of the courthouse after realizing that they were reporters.

Members of the public who said they were not reporters were allowed to come and go from the building.

Benson, meanwhile, arrived and departed through an entrance that is generally reserved for court employees.

The building’s security director, Tommy Anderson, said Friday that his office interpreted the judges’ order as barring reporters from the building as a whole.

He defended differentiating between media and other members of the public by saying that others could have needed access to the law library or the Supreme Court.

Anderson would not say how common it is for litigants to come and go via the entrance normally reserved for court employees or how it is typically arranged.

Willard acknowledged it was rare, but she said it is within security officials’ discretion to make exceptions if they feel it is warranted.

Thursday’s hearing came a year after Benson announced he would leave control of his business empire to his wife Gayle, rather than his daughter and grandchildren. Daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Ryan and Rita LeBlanc filed a lawsuit alleging that Benson had deteriorated physically and mentally while being manipulated into severing ties with them. Reese ruled against them, and they appealed.

A ruling on the appeal is expected within a month.

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