Ban on post-verdict interviews with jurors upheld
LOUISIANA–In late October, a three-judge appellate panel in New Orleans (5th Cir.) unanimously held that a federal District Court order barring the news media from conducting post-verdict interviews with jurors in a criminal trial was not unduly vague and did not violate the news media’s newsgathering rights. The two newspapers involved in the appeal filed a motion in mid-November asking the entire court to reconsider the decision.
The order, signed by federal District Judge Sarah Vance of New Orleans in July 1997 after the jury rendered a verdict in the high- profile racketeering trial, stated that “absent a special order by me, no juror may be interviewed by anyone concerning the deliberations of the jury.” Vance explicitly instructed the jury during a late-June post-verdict address that the attorneys and the parties in the case were not to question them without a court order.
Two New Orleans newspapers, The Advocate and The New Orleans Times-Picayune, challenged the order, arguing that its reference to deliberations was unconstitutionally vague, and that the order was unlimited in time and that it applied equally to jurors who were willing to speak and those who desired privacy. The newspapers noted that public interest in the case was high, because two of the six defendants were former state senators, and the witnesses included an archbishop and former governor.
A number of media organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the newspapers’ appeal.
Citing its previous First Amendment press decisions, the appeals court said that the order was constitutional because it was narrowly tailored to prevent a “substantial threat to the administration of justice.” Specifically, the court noted that the order applied only to deliberations and not to the verdict, and that it applied only to interviews with the jurors and not those with jurors’ relatives or friends.
In its request to the appeals court for reconsideration, the newspapers argued that requiring the media to seek judicial approval to conduct interviews with jurors constituted an impermissible prior restraint on the news media. The newspapers further argued that the order was inconsistent with the court’s prior decision invalidating a court restriction on post-verdict juror interviews. (U.S. v. Cleveland; Media Counsel: Jack Weiss, New Orleans)