Tim Crews was in his element, chatting up lawyers, felons and other courtroom denizens and waiting for a judge to rule on whether he needed to comply with the Glenn County district attorney's demand that he turn over notes from some of the muck he had raked.
Crews, 69, his white beard long and frazzled, wore his work attire to Judge Donald Byrd's courtroom: faded jeans with cuffs, red suspenders and stained gray T-shirt that doubles as his press pass.
"The Sacramento Valley Mirror. Means News," printing on the shirt says.
Crews is the founder, owner, publisher, editor, reporter, photographer, ad salesman and delivery boy for the paper that loyal readers call "The Smirror." It's an irreverent, scrappy and opinionated rag of 2,960 circulation that operates by the motto: "If we don't report it, who will?"
Crews is a watchdog, but one, he notes, with a little more drool on his jowls than most. The shoestring on which he operates is frayed. Overhead ran $170,000 last year on revenue of $150,000. He has no website and doesn't tweet.
His assets include a Honda that had 243,981 miles on it last week and Buddy, a black Lab that likes Milk Bones a little too much and sometimes stirs himself to bark when customers come to the Mirror's office in downtown Willows.
Crews barks and bites by pushing the boundaries of public records and open meetings acts, regularly landing in First Amendment battles. The California Newspaper Publishers Association honored him with its Freedom of Information Award at a luncheon in Universal City two weeks ago.
One week ago, District Attorney Robert Maloney subpoenaed Crews and his notes from a story about a guy facing minor drug charges who told Crews that cops roughed him up while a nurse drew his blood.
Maloney, a banty fellow whose large, silver belt buckle accentuated his protruding belly, has been one of Crews' recurrent targets. In a March 27 story, Crews opened with this line: "The district attorney is trying to destroy the criminal justice system, several attorneys allege." The story got harsher from there.
San Francisco attorney Duffy Carolan, a First Amendment specialist who regularly defends Crews, drove to Willows on Thursday to fight the subpoena, with no realistic expectation that he can pay her.
Carolan told Judge Byrd that she had hoped to avoid the hearing by urging Maloney to read a 1999 California Supreme Court case that clearly states prosecutors cannot seize reporters' notes.
"I did not have time to read the case," Maloney told the judge. The judge, who did read the case, quickly quashed the subpoena.
Although Crews beat that rap, his legal issues are not over. On May 21, the state's 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento will hear Crews v. Willows Unified School District. If he loses, the public's ability to obtain records will be severely hampered, and Crews' newspaper could fold.
The story began as his stories often do, with a tip that someone in power — the school superintendent, in this instance — was doing something bad, using public money for political purposes.
Crews delivered a Public Records Act request seeking a year's worth of the superintendent's emails on March 5, 2009. The district said it could not produce documents before April 28, 2009.