All Babette Liby wanted to do was "steal a glance" at her son.
She made the 35-minute drive from New Windsor, Ill., to Davenport on Jan. 5 for her son's sentencing hearing on a drug charge. She knew she wouldn't be allowed to talk to him or hug him, but she could at least make eye contact - give him a "loving smile" before he went off to pay his dues.
Liby and her mother joined her son's case manager at the Scott County Courthouse and waited for the case worker's chance to speak in support of her son.
That chance never came.
"We were told to stay in the hallway and not attend the proceedings, because we were all wearing perfume!" Liby said. "It seems that the court reporter inside the courtroom was allergic to perfumes and lotions.
"I am sorry for her condition, but I was robbed of getting a glimpse of my son. Why didn't they let us know ahead of time? Isn't that public domain, being in a courtroom? I feel like my rights have been violated."
The man on the bench in the courtroom that day, District Judge Gary McKenrick, said he's in a tough spot, but he does not agree any rights were violated.
"There are no absolute rights," he said. "You balance rights all the time."
The balance he has tried to strike is to have lawyers who do business in his courtroom notify family members in advance to warn them against wearing perfume or lotion. In Liby's case, no one contacted her, and she's not surprised.
"My son's public defender would have no way of knowing my mother and I were coming," she said.
The judge said it is "a relatively rare occasion (that) we've had to exclude people from the courtroom," adding, "Is it a 100 percent foolproof system? Obviously not. But we certainly try. We don't want to exclude people from the courtroom."
But that's what is happening.
For the record, the afflicted court reporter developed the allergy recently. She did not react to scents for many years, the judge said, but had a severe reaction to the 20 roses her husband presented to her for their 20th wedding anniversary.
"We can't kill a court reporter, because we're going to let people in," he said, referring to the severity of the allergy.
Well, of course not. Nobody wants to see harm come to the court reporter. And most of us can sympathize. For example, I've enjoyed shrimp for most of my life, but my shellfish days came to an end about two years ago when I ate a piece of shrimp and could suddenly see my lips.
My throat also swelled, and I couldn't breathe. I wound up in the emergency room and must now be very cautious about food exposures.
Liby said she feels for the court reporter, too.
"I'm sorry for her," she said. "I really am. Members of my family have to carry EpiPens (epinephrine injectors), because they're so allergic to bee stings. It's scary.
"But why does this woman work in public?"
Asked why the county doesn't sequester the court reporter to an office job, McKenrick said the bottom line is his obligation to "make reasonable accommodations," and he said he's doing the best he can.
I asked this question: I'm a newspaper reporter, and I was at the Scott County Courthouse last week. I was wearing perfume. What if I entered the judge's courtroom to cover one of his sentencing hearings? Would he have kicked me out?
"If my regular court reporter is working with me that day, yes," he said.
This is a problem.
Reporters do not, technically, have greater public access than anybody else. But the freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment, prohibits government from interfering with the printing of information or opinion, except in extraordinary circumstances.
Is one woman's allergy extraordinary enough? In this balancing act, is it presumed the weight of all the public is equal to the weight of one court reporter?
Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and director of the School of Journalism at Drake University, Des Moines, said her best advice would be for a reporter to ask McKenrick for a recess or delay if asked to leave his courtroom.
"That would give you time to call the office and get someone else to cover the hearing," she said.
The judge said he has, in fact, rescheduled hearings "on occasion," because of the scent problem. But he is hesitant to do so, he said, because delays can cause a backup in the court system.
"There's no doubt that it upsets some people, and I can appreciate that," McKenrick said of the whole sticky matter. "I think we have to make reasonable accommodations, and I think that's what we're doing."
There can be no doubt the judge's intentions are good. And make no mistake: I feel for this court reporter's problem.
What is happening in Scott County, however, is that an individual's right to not be placed in peril in her workplace is overriding others' right to be present in her workplace. There is simply no way to notify every member of the public - in advance - of special circumstances inside a courtroom.
And that stinks for everybody.
Contact Barb Ickes at (563) 383-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.