Richmond Free Press photographer Sandra Sellars recently made history when she covered the historic investiture of Virginia Supreme Court Justice Cleo E. Powell. When the prize-winning photographer arrived at the state's highest court to cover the Powell formal installation, Sellars became:
- The first Black newspaper photographer to cover an investiture in the 232-year history of the court located across the street from the State Capitol.
- The first woman newspaper photographer to cover a Supreme Court investiture, according to Free Press research.
Overton Jones, a retired Richmond daily editor, agreed that Sellars was a likely history maker in Richmond journalism. "I don't recall any" woman photographer covering a Supreme Court investiture, said Jones, who worked first for the defunct Richmond News Leader and later for the Richmond Times-Dispatch a total of 55 years, beginning in 1938.
Ms. Sellars' presence will add to the historical significance of the installation of Justice Powell, the first Black female justice elected to the court by the General Assembly.
Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser's approval of Sellars represents a major victory for the decade-long Free Press campaign to change the court's guidelines that previously barred photographers from the Free Press and other Black-owned newspapers, as well as those from non-dailies. Earlier, the chief justice, in response to another Free Press campaign, expunged sexist references from the court's website.
The new Kinser guidelines, for the first time, allow a pool photographer for non-daily newspapers and one, as usual, for dailies. Previously, the court only allowed one pool photographer in the courtroom — and that photographer always came from a white-owned daily or The Associated Press.
For the Powell investiture, Steve Helber, a veteran photographer for The Associated Press, has been designated to provide pool coverage for dailies.
The court notified the Free Press of the guideline change in an Oct. 6 email to Raymond H. Boone, Free Press editor/publisher. The email also notified Boone of the selection of Sellars to "serve as the pool photographer representing non-daily newspapers." The email was sent by Katya N. Herndon, the state court's director of legislative and public relations.
Sellars also will represent the 200 newspaper members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
The court's policy change stems from a Sept. 19 meeting between Chief Justice Kinser, Justice Powell and Mr. Boone, who was accompanied by Ms. Sellars and two other staff members — reporter Jeremy Lazarus and photographer Jerome Reid. At the rare face-to-face between the chief justice and the press, the chief justice also was accompanied by the court's executive secretary, Karl R. Hade, and Ms. Herndon.
During the cordial, hour-long meeting in the chief justice's office, the chief justice told Boone that the court was seeking to revamp its coverage policies to improve access to its ceremonies. She outlined the two-photographer policy for ceremonial events in the high court's small courtroom during the meeting. At the time, she would only say the policy change was under consideration.
The Free Press challenged the court's ban on the newspaper's access to ceremonies as a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press. Boone also contended that the old policy promoted monopoly journalism.
The Free Press campaign began in 2003 when the state's first Black chief justice, the late Leroy Rountree Hassell, rejected a pledge to the Free Press to cover his investiture after the pledge had tentatively been offered by the court's staff.
At the time, Justice Hassell did so to maintain the court's tradition of allowing only one press pool photographer at such events. "I want to keep everything traditional," he was quoted as saying. During his tenure that ended just before his death last winter, he refused to consider any change to the policy despite repeated Free Press editorials challenging his position.
The Free Press continued its campaign after Chief Justice Kinser took office Feb. 1, only to be rebuffed in seeking to cover the Sept. 1 investiture of new Justice Elizabeth A. McClannahan.
Chief Justice Kinser set up the meeting with Boone after he wrote her Aug. 30, protesting the Free Press' exclusion from the McClannahan investiture and past ceremonies and urging her to lead the change in the court's press policy.
The Free Press also gained support for its position from the NNPA, Virginia Press Association and the Coalition for Open Government.