TEXAS — A federal appellate court panel upheld in late June a judge’s order prohibiting the media from contacting former jurors in a high profile money laundering case.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.), upheld U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela’s order prohibiting the media from contacting the jury without his permission.
In early June, a federal district court jury in Houston convicted two former American Express Bank International employees on charges that they laundered $30 million of drug money.
In mid-June, the Brownsville Herald filed a written protest with the judge arguing that the order violated its right of access to the jurors.
That prompted Vela to send letters to the jurors explaining that he would allow the media to contact them only if they returned the letter and checked a box saying, “It is my wish to be interviewed.” Vela said that although First Amendment protections are “sacrosanct,” he had the power to ensure the privacy and security of the jurors and to prevent their harassment.
In late June, the Herald appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The paper argued that Vela’s order was an unconstitutional restriction on its news gathering ability. It also argued that Vela’s order went beyond the trial judges’s authority to place restrictions on press access to jurors permitted under U.S. v. Harrelson (5th Cir. 1983).
Under Harrelson, a judge may order limited restrictions on access to jurors, such as prohibiting the press from repeatedly requesting interviews after a juror expressed a desire not to be interviewed and barring questions about how other jurors voted.
In a one page opinion, the court said that the newspaper had not made the extraordinary showing required to overturn the lower court’s order. It found that Vela’s restrictions were allowable under Harrelson.
Herald reporter, Dane Schiller, said the newspaper is considering an appeal to the full panel of 22 judges.
(In Re: The Brownsville Herald and Dane Schiller; Media Counsel: Hugh Lowe, Austin)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.