Kentucky judge upholds rule preventing contact with federal jurors

Lilly Chapa | Secret Courts | News | November 27, 2012

A Kentucky federal judge recently allowed media contact with jurors in a hate crime case, but denied the newspaper's attempt to strike down a local rule that normally prevents interaction with jurors in a federal trial.

District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove in London, Ky., allowed Lexington Herald-Leader reporters to interview willing jurors in the trial of two cousins found guilty of assaulting a man. The case is the first in the nation where the defendants were charged under the revised federal hate crime law, which makes injuring someone based on his or her sexual orientation illegal.

“We think that the rules that exist, in respect to interviewing jurors after a case and accessing the jury’s identification, are beyond what is constitutionally permitted," said Herald-Leader attorney Robert Houlihan.

The Kentucky's Eastern and Western District Courts' rule states that, unless permitted by the court, “no person, party or attorney, nor any representative of a party or attorney may contact, interview or communicate with any juror before, during or after trial.” The jurors' names also are kept secret.

Under the rule, a judge can give reporters the names of jurors who have agreed to speak with the media.

The case involved two cousins who were charged with the kidnapping and assault of a gay man. In October, jurors convicted the men on kidnapping and conspiracy charges, but acquitted them on the charge that they assaulted him because of his sexual orientation. Only one of the 12 jurors agreed to be interviewed.

Houlihan said Herald-Leader journalists felt like they should be able to talk to jurors involved in any case, and this was an appropriate case to challenge the rule.

“It was an interesting case and received a lot of notoriety,” Houlihan said. “The jury declined to convict [the men] with the hate crimes act, so there’s a lot of curiosity as to why the jury made the decision that they did.”

Van Tatenhove stated in his order that the rule might be inconvenient, but it is not unconstitutional.

“The purpose of this rule is not to stifle the media or create some insidious barrier to their gathering of the news related to federal court proceedings,” the order stated. “Instead, this rule is a mere extension of the privacy provided jurors during their deliberations.”

According to Houlihan, a similar rule was declared unconstitutional in Kentucky state courts. Reporters have access to the names of jurors in state court cases and are allowed to interview them after trials without court intervention.

“We don’t know of any decided case law in the country that upheld a rule of this breadth,” Houlihan said. “Every circuit that has addressed this has struck down this rule on exactly the grounds we asserted.”

Houlihan said the newspaper has not decided whether it will appeal the judge’s order.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Master - Open Courts Compendium: F. Interviewing petit jurors and grand jurors