Kansas commission seeks magistrate’s perspective on Marion search warrant complaint

Judge Laura Viar asked to respond to ethics claim leveled by Topekan

By: - September 6, 2023 9:22 am
An organization filed an ethics complaint against Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, accusing him of misconduct by participating in a 2020 lawsuit questioning election procedures in four swing states that helped President Joe Biden defeat former President Donald Trump. This 22-foot marble sculpture dominates the lobby of the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct says Marion County Magistrate Judge Laura Viar should explain her decision to sign search warrants relied on by police to raid the Marion newspaper office in August. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct requested 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 August searches were based on allegations advanced by local police that personal information on a business owner had been stolen by the newspaper. The raids, especially the seizure of equipment that threatened to undermine publication of the newspaper, triggered condemnation by dozens of journalism organizations.

First Amendment attorneys said they were convinced the judge ought to have been able to grasp the warrants were constitutionally flawed.

A co-owner of the Marion County Record who hurled obscenities at officers searching her living room died one day after the raid. Before the dust settled, Marion County’s attorney withdrew the warrants on grounds of “insufficient evidence.” The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said seized items including computers, telephones and other reporting equipment taken by local law enforcement had to be returned to owners.

In addition, Keri Strahler of Topeka filed a complaint against Viar with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Commission members met Sept. 1 to consider her complaint. Two members of the ethics panel recused themselves, but the remainder agreed it was important for the judge to respond to the complaint. The case also was added to the commission’s November agenda.

Viar, a 2003 graduate of the Washburn University law school, assumed the magistrate’s job less than one year ago. The 8th district magistrate performs court duties for Dickinson, Geary, Morris and Marion counties. She was Morris County attorney from 2005 to 2022 and worked as city attorney of Cottonwood Falls from 2015 to 2022.

Viar signed search warrants at the request of Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who was named chief after resigning from the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department rather than be demoted for purportedly creating a toxic work environment.

Eric Meyer, publisher and co-owner of the newspaper, said staff at the publication had angered Cody prior to the raid by seeking information about his background in law enforcement.

One reporter at the weekly newspaper filed a federal lawsuit against Cody following the raid for an alleged violation of her constitutional rights.

The Marion Record’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, said law enforcement authorities exceeded boundaries of the search warrants. It was secured based on an assertion 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.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.