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Appeals court orders hearing on Blagojevich juror names

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  1. Court Access
A federal appellate court has ruled that the judge presiding over the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich…

A federal appellate court has ruled that the judge presiding over the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich must hold a hearing to determine whether juror names should be kept secret.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) said on July 2 that U.S. District Judge James Zagel “acted without evidence” when he originally ruled that the jurors in the high-profile trial should remain anonymous until after the trial was completed.

“We do not know the answers to some vital questions,” the appellate court said, adding that they would be interested in knowing if jurors in other high-profile case had been pestered by the media after being instructed to ignore unsolicited contact about the trial and if there were any alternatives to total sequestration.

Multiple media organizations, including the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, challenged Judge Zagel’s original order and argued that there is a presumption of access to juror names while the trial is proceeding. They also argued that access to jurors is critical in ensuring the legal system is working properly and pointed to past instances of the jury selection process failing to weed out biased jurors.  During the corruption trial of former Gov. George Ryan, for example, the Tribune revealed that two jurors had lied about past convictions on their jury questionnaires, which could have disqualified them from serving on the jury.

“No one fancies a repeat performance” of the Ryan trial, said the appellate court.  

However, the appellate court also emphasized that there are situations where anonymous juries are permissible, especially when the safety of the jurors could be jeopardized or the defendant has attempted to bribe the jurors. It added that although a judge must find “some unusual risk” to justify keeping juror names confidential, the significant public interest in Blagojevich’s trial may create those “exceptional risks.”

Judge Zagel has argued that the jury selection process has improved since Ryan’s trial and that making the juror names public will both threaten juror impartiality and discourage potential jurors from serving in future trials.

After evidence from both sides is presented, there will be a better basis for understanding the risks of releasing the jurors names and alternatives to sequestration, the appellate court said.

The hearing on the release of juror names will be held while the Blagojevich trial is proceeding and could occur within the next few weeks. Juror names will remain private until after the hearing.