Keith Hovan. Credit: Southcoast Health

WAREHAM — A justice on the state’s highest appellate court will halt the show cause hearing for Southcoast Health CEO Keith A. Hovan, originally scheduled for Monday, in response to The New Bedford Light’s motion for a stay in the proceedings. 

The Light on Friday submitted petitions to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott L. Kafker, appealing the denial by a Wareham clerk magistrate to permit public and media access to the hearing. An assistant clerk on the SJC said Sunday that Kafker will issue the stay and review the case to determine whether the hearing should be opened.

In late December of 2021, The Light first filed a motion to access the hearing on a possible felony charge against Hovan for alleged possession of illegal firearm feeding devices or magazines. Wareham District Court Clerk Magistrate Daryl G. Manchester denied the request on Jan. 4, citing Hovan’s right to privacy.

“The issue involved in the show cause hearing has no connection to his position as CEO of Southcoast Health nor to the reason he was charged with assault and battery. The issue is a separate personal matter,” Manchester wrote in an email. “Therefore, I find that Mr. Hovan is entitled to the privacy of the show [cause] hearing process and that the interest of the public does not outweigh that right to privacy.”

Show cause hearings are in most cases held when a person has not been arrested, but is accused by law enforcement or another individual of committing a crime. Massachusetts is an outlier in closing these hearings to the public and press. The reasoning: to protect people from “undeserved notoriety, embarrassment and disgrace” if complaints against them are denied and no charges are issued, according to state district court standards.

The Light appealed Manchester’s decision with Wareham District Court Judge Edward H. Sharkansky on Jan. 5. Sharkansky responded by email on Jan. 7, after courthouses across the state were closed due to a snowstorm, stating he has no authority to overturn the decision of the clerk magistrate, and that the appeal must be taken to the single justice of the SJC. 

Before Sharkansky said he had no authority to overturn the decision, The Light filed a motion on Friday with the SJC to pause the proceedings until the district court judge issued a determination on the appeal.

The Light also submitted a petition Friday with the SJC seeking that the hearing be opened to the public and press. The petitions were filed pro se, meaning without legal representation, and required a $315 filing fee, to be paid to the state. 

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, interviews New Bedford Light reporter Anastasia Lennon about The Light’s appeal for an open hearing in Keith Hovan’s illegal ammunition case.

A person or organization can request a show cause hearing be opened to the public (and thereby the press) by arguing that legitimate public interests outweigh the accused’s right of privacy, according to the court standards.

It is not sufficient that the accused is well known or a public official. A request should also show the incident has attracted public attention, thereby diminishing the interest in shielding the accused’s privacy, the court standards state. However, a court opinion cited by the standards states that not every case that attracts public attention “necessarily requires” a public hearing.

The Standard-Times successfully petitioned for access to a show cause hearing in the OUI case of New Bedford Ward 3 City Councilor Hugh Dunn in late 2021, arguing Dunn is a public official and that the public was already aware of his case and the possible charges. Fall River District Court Clerk Magistrate John O’Neil granted public access after consulting with Dunn, Dunn’s attorney and the state prosecutor.

Beacon Hill has heard proposals to open these hearings across the board. State Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral of New Bedford has filed house bills the last two legislative sessions that would make these hearings presumptively open to the public, with a closed hearing as the exception. The current bill is titled “An Act relative to transparency in clerk magistrate hearings.”

The Light contacted Cabral by email late last week for comment, given his proposed legislation, but the representative did not immediately respond. In 2019, when he and other legislators filed companion bills in the last legislative session, he told the Boston Globe “it is an issue of transparency” and “open government.” 

Hovan has been on paid leave from Southcoast Health as its longtime president and CEO since November after he was arrested and charged with assault and battery — a charge that was dismissed in Wareham District Court in December after the alleged victim chose to not testify. 

Email Anastasia Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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