Ban on interviews with jurors in criminal trial overturned
CALIFORNIA–Recognizing that newsgathering is an activity protected by the First Amendment, a state appellate court in San Francisco overturned in late February a lower court’s order barring the news media from seeking interviews with jurors at the conclusion of a criminal trial.
The panel noted that state law provides safeguards against the unwanted disclosure of the identities of jurors in criminal cases and authorizes the sealing of records of juror identities based upon a showing of a “compelling interest,” but unanimously held that a trial court cannot issue a “blanket order” prohibiting the press from contacting jurors who have been discharged from their duties.
In mid-June, at the conclusion of the criminal trial of Gayle Bishop in Superior Court in Martinez, Judge John Tiernan said that he had been told by the jurors that they did not want to discuss with the press their deliberations or how they reached a verdict. The judge directed any juror who disagreed with his assessment to raise his or her hand. When no one did, the judge said that the jurors were “not to be contacted by the press, because they have already stated their preference not to be contacted.”
The Contra Costa Times asked the court to withdraw the order restraining the news media from contacting former jurors, but Tiernan never ruled on the motion. In December 1997, Bishop moved for a new trial based in part on allegations of jury misconduct, and Tiernan denied a media request for reconsideration of the earlier order prohibiting media contact.
The Times appealed, claiming that the order violated the media’s First Amendment newsgathering rights. On behalf of the trial court, the state attorney general argued that the order was necessary because of the danger that citizens will be unwilling to serve on juries if their privacy is not respected. Bishop took no position on the issue of post-verdict juror interviews.
The appeals court ruled in favor of the newspaper, holding that the order was overbroad because it applied to individuals who were not parties before the court. The appellate panel noted that the cases cited by the attorney general in support of the order addressed contact with jurors by the defendant or his or her attorney, rather than the media.
The appellate court vacated the order and said that the press should be allowed to contact the jurors. The court said that its decision should not be “construed as requiring jurors to speak to the media or anyone else. A juror may speak or remain silent as he or she desires.” (Contra Costa Newspapers v. Superior Court of Contra Costa County; Media Counsel: James Brelsford; Menlo Park)