Newspaper heads to high court over jury questionnaires

Jason Wiederin | Newsgathering | Quicklink | November 26, 2008

The Rhode Island Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments over The Providence Journal's request for jury selection questionnaires in a pair of criminal cases stemming from a deadly nightclub fire, the newspaper reported.

The Journal's lawyers said there are First Amendment implications in the lower court's decision not to release the 32-page questionnaires filled out in preparation for the trial of the former Station nightclub owners. The club went up in flames during a Great White concert  in 2003, killing 100 people.

Michael Derderian and his brother Jeffrey have pleaded out of the case. But, according to The Journal, the newspaper's lawyers contend the broader question of whether such questionnaires should be released is still pertinent.

Questionnaires are generally used to expedite and simplify the jury selection process, as the newspaper notes -- particularly in high-profile cases. The oral segment of jury questioning is generally public, but The Journal said the superior court judge in the Station case refused to release them to the newspaper.

"Constitutional principles," The Journal argued in court filings, "cannot be lost to time-saving measures."

Lawyers for the state attorney general argue that the Station case is moot, and the release of the documents would make it more difficult to assemble juries in the future because the information asked of them is personal.

Oral arguments are to be held Dec. 8.