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Appellate panel hearing on reporter’s jailing will be open to public

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         FIFTH CIRCUIT         Confidentiality/Privilege         Aug 14, 2001    

Appellate panel hearing on reporter’s jailing will be open to public

  • A federal panel in Houston reversed its own decision to close the courtroom for the appeal of the jailing of Vanessa Leggett.

The Houston courtroom in which journalist Vanessa Leggett’s lawyer will argue for her release from jail tomorrow will be open to the public, after the Fifth Circuit panel hearing the case withdrew its own order to close the proceeding late today. The hearing is scheduled for 3:00 pm.

Leggett, a book author who is researching a high-profile Houston murder case, has spent 25 days in jail so far for declining to reveal confidential materials and sources to a federal grand jury.

The closure order was overturned after a number of media organizations — ABC, Inc., the Associated Press, Belo Corp., CBS News, the National Broadcasting Company, Inc., the New York Times Company, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Tribune Company — petitioned the court to reconsider its decision.

The group argued that while the case arose from a grand jury proceeding, discussion of the issues involved in the Leggett appeal would not jeopardize the grand jury investigation. Furthermore, an order closing a courtroom must be carefully considered and closely tailored to address a harm that will occur if public access is allowed, they alleged.

After receiving the motion, the court said in a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office:

“Please reply in a succinct letter brief by 3:00 p.m. today to Leggett’s motions to unseal oral argument. The court is especially concerned about (1) whether it is realistically likely that matters ‘affecting’ the grand jury beyond those already publicly disclosed will be brought up at oral argument, and (2) whether alternative measures, such as an admonition to counsel or sealed post-argument briefs, will suffice to protect grand jury secrecy and provide public access to the oral argument.”

Contents of the prosecutor’s reply letter were not available late Tuesday, but the court overturned its order less than two hours after the prosecutor’s deadline passed.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Leggett and was joined by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Another twenty media groups, including ABC, CBS, NBC, the Associated Press, The New York Times Company and the Washington Post company, as well as a number of authors’ and writers’ groups, petitioned to join the brief, but that motion was denied on Monday.

(In re: Grand Jury Subpoena; Journalist’s Counsel: Mike DeGeurin, Houston; Media Organizations’ Counsel: Charles Babcock, Robert Latham, John Edwards; Jackson Walker LLP, Houston) GL

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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