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Federal judge overrules state court gag order in tobacco case

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    NMU         FLORIDA         Secret Courts         Apr 6, 2000    

Federal judge overrules state court gag order in tobacco case

  • A federal judge in Miami found that a sweeping gag order against participants in a tobacco-related trial violated the First Amendment.

Saying that a broad gag order against trial participants and their attorneys violated the media’s First Amendment newsgathering rights, a Miami federal judge enjoined enforcement of a state court judge’s order that had prevented participants in a class action lawsuit against tobacco companies from speaking to the public about the case.

Federal District Judge Adalberto Jordan issued a 20-page opinion on Apr. 5 that immediately enjoined continued enforcement of the gag order instituted by Miami state trial Judge Robert Kaye in Oct. 1998. Jordan found that the gag order violated the U.S. Constitution because “[t]he record fails to show that the gag order . . . [is] necessary for a fair trial” and because Kaye’s order “is overbroad in scope and of infinite duration.”

“The equities . . . favor enjoining enforcement of this particular gag order,” Jordan wrote at the conclusion of his opinion. “It is for Judge Kaye to determine whether a more narrowly drawn gag order is necessary under the circumstances currently prevailing in the . . . litigation to ensure that the trial is concluded fairly.”

Kaye instituted the gag order after jury selection was completed for the liability phase of the class action lawsuit. The jury has subsequently found that the tobacco companies are liable for three plaintiffs’ smoking-related injuries and is currently considering a request for more than $12 million in compensatory damages. The jury also will consider whether the tobacco industry should pay billions of dollars to punitive damages to a class of ill smokers that could number in excess of 500,000.

The case was brought in federal court by a coalition of media entities that included the Dow Jones Co., The New York Times, Media General Operations, The Miami Herald, Gannett and the Sun-Sentinel. Previously, the tobacco companies had unsuccessfully appealed Kaye’s gag order to the Florida state appellate courts.

(Dow Jones v. Kaye; Media Counsel: Gregg Thomas, Miami)

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