Graham Holt hearing on hold
No action against Greensboro attorney until North Carolina supreme court rules on gag order
“How do we punish somebody for something that’s not valid?”
So asked attorney Don Carter on Monday, Sept. 30, at what had been scheduled as a hearing on whether attorney Graham Holt violated a gag order. Carter is a member of a panel appointed by Guilford County Superior Court Judge Susan Bray, who initiated this disciplinary proceeding after Holt wrote an email urging the Greensboro City Council to watch videos of a 2016 incident involving four African-American men and five Greensboro Police Department officers.
Last January, Judge Bray ruled that Graham Holt and his then-client, Zared Jones, could view GPD body camera footage, but only if they signed a pledge of confidentiality. Bray also ruled that the mayor and city council could also view the videos, but were subject to a similar restriction against discussing what they saw. Due to this restriction, the mayor and council declined to view the videos. The city appealed the gag order, but the state Court of Appeals upheld it earlier this summer.
On Aug. 9, Graham Holt sent a mass email to the mayor and council via the open data portal on the city website. In it, he urged them to view the videos, which he alleged depicted GPD officers engaging in racial profiling, perjury and police brutality.
City attorney Chuck Watts notified Judge Bray that Holt had sent this email to the city, and discussed with her whether or not the city could publicly release it. The possibility of an order to seal the email was discussed, but the city advised their attorney not to enter into any such agreement and released Holt’s email to the public. On Aug. 27, Judge Bray initiated disciplinary action against Holt. In her motion, she wrote that Holt, “may have acted with impropriety calculated to bring contempt upon the administration of justice.” No disciplinary action has been initiated against the city.
On Sep. 11, attorneys for the City of Greensboro asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to lift Judge Bray’s gag order. Due to the filing of that appeal, when Holt appeared before Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour on Monday, Sept. 30, no actual hearing took place.
Baddour is the judge who will ultimately rule on whether or not Holt violated the gag order. The advisory panel, which consists of Carter and former district court judge Wendy Enochs, will make recommendations to Baddour before he renders his decision, but Baddour will not be bound by those recommendations. Bray had originally also appointed Brookes Pierce attorney Kearns Davis to the panel, but Davis recused himself.
At Monday’s proceeding, Robert O’Hale, the Greensboro attorney defending Holt in this proceeding, asked for a stay until the N.C. Supreme Court rules on the city’s appeal to overturn Judge Bray’s gag order. He stated that, should the gag order be overturned, the entire matter could be moot. O’Hale explained this argument by stating that his client should not be censured for violating an order found unlawful by the state supreme court. This was the potential dilemma panel member Carter addressed when he hypothetically asked “How do we punish somebody for something that’s not valid?”
Special prosecuting attorney Walter “Kirk” Burton disputed this claim by stating that Holt was not part of the city’s appeal of the gag order, but acknowledged that a reversal of that gag order could impact any sanctions brought against Holt. Both the defense and prosecution stated they were unaware of any existing case law that specifically addresses these issues, which Judge Baddour called “uncharted territory.” Baddour stated that some rough analogies may exist, such as rulings that “a person who resists an unlawful arrest is not guilty of resisting arrest.”
Monday’s proceeding began with all parties expressing confusion as to the role of the panel appointed by Judge Bray, with Judge Baddour calling the panel “a new beast to me.” After discussion, it was decided that, while the panel would be able to question witnesses directly, they were there in an advisory rather than investigative capacity. Ultimately, all agreed that they “should not proceed in a substantive hearing” until after the state supreme court rules on the city’s appeal. It was also agreed that Judge Bray, city attorney Watts, and GPD attorney Amiel Rossabi could all potentially be called as witnesses when the hearing does take place.
“But that could be a year from now,” said Judge Baddour, who stated that he will retain jurisdiction over the case.