On Thursday, September 7, 2023, the NebraskaExaminer reported that the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct has recently requested that Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar explain her decision to authorize search warrants used in controversial raids of the Marion newspaper office, the publisher’s home, and a city council member’s residence. The raids were conducted in August and were based on allegations by local police that personal information on a business owner had been stolen by the newspaper.

The search warrants were widely criticized, with many journalism organizations condemning the raids as an attack on the First Amendment. First Amendment attorneys have expressed surprise that Judge Viar did not recognize the constitutional flaws in the warrants. The raids resulted in the death of a co-owner of the Marion County Record who hurled obscenities at officers searching her living room. The Marion County attorney subsequently withdrew the warrants due to insufficient evidence, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation ordered the return of seized items, including computers, telephones, and other reporting equipment taken by local law enforcement.

In addition to the backlash from the raids, Keri Strahler of Topeka has filed a complaint against Judge Viar with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission met on September 1 to consider the complaint, and while two members recused themselves, the remainder agreed that Judge Viar should respond to the complaint. The case has also been added to the commission’s November agenda.

Judge Viar has served as an 8th District magistrate for less than a year. She previously worked as the Morris County attorney from 2005 to 2022 and as the city attorney of Cottonwood Falls from 2015 to 2022. Judge Viar signed the search warrants at the request of Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who was named chief after resigning from the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department due to allegations of creating a toxic work environment.

The controversial raids and subsequent complaints against Judge Viar have raised concerns about the freedom of the press and the limits of law enforcement power. The case has sparked a statewide debate about the importance of protecting the First Amendment and ensuring that judges are aware of their constitutional responsibilities.

The Marion Record’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, has argued that law enforcement authorities exceeded the boundaries of the search warrants, which were secured based on an assertion that a Record reporter somehow violated state law by looking up information on a public website of the Kansas Department of Revenue about a restaurant owner’s driving license status.

In conclusion, the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct’s request for Judge Viar to explain her decision to authorize the search warrants is a necessary step in ensuring that the judiciary is held accountable for its actions. The case serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting the First Amendment and the need for judges to be aware of their constitutional responsibilities. As the case progresses, it is essential that all parties involved are held accountable for their actions and that the public’s trust in the judiciary and the media is maintained.

 

Source: Nebraska Examiner