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Appellate court approves order silencing courtroom observers

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         TEXAS         Secret Courts         Dec 3, 1999    

Appellate court approves order silencing courtroom observers

  • Spectators who wish to remain in a courtroom during a commercial suit that may involve trade secret information will be forced to sign a confidentiality agreement.

A Dallas trial court did not abuse its discretion by giving spectators to a commercial suit the choice of leaving the courtroom during certain portions of the trial or signing a confidentiality agreement not to disclose information that they hear or see in the trial, according to a state appellate court’s Dec. 2 ruling.

Trial Judge David Evans’ Nov. 15 order states that members of the public who want to stay in the courtroom when certain exhibits or the contents and subject matter of those exhibits are discussed must sign a “Courtroom Spectator Confidentiality Order and Undertaking.” According to Evans’ order, the exhibits in question embody “the probable existence of a trade secret or other privileged information which has not been publically discussed.” Any spectator who signs and then violates the confidentiality order faces contempt of court charges and a possible civil suit for misappropriation of trade secrets.

The trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 6.

A panel of the Dallas court of appeals — an intermediate state appellate court — stated that Evans had conducted adequate hearings concerning the trade secrets and the closing of the courtroom and that his order contains sufficient provisions for a review of any request for closure of the courtroom. “The policy of open court proceedings is not absolute and a courtroom may be closed to the public to protect trade secrets,” the court concluded.

The Dallas Morning News had appealed Evans’ order, and the Bloomberg news service had filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the appellate court. They argued that Evans’ order violates the U.S. and Texas Constitutions and that it does not abide by federal or state standards for closing a courtroom or imposing a prior restraint.

DSC Communications brought the underlying lawsuit against Samsung Electronics in 1996 after Samsung allegedly hired nine DSC engineers. DSC alleged that Samsung was attempting to steal digital-switching technology. Since the initiation of the suit, DSC has been purchased by Alcatel, which has pressed forward with the action and is seeking $425 million in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

(In re Dallas Morning News, Inc.; Counsel for The Dallas Morning News: Terence Murphy and Sydney Bosworth McDole, Dallas)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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