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High court declines to hear book author’s appeal

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From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 44.

From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 44.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of aspiring book author Vanessa Leggett, who was jailed for 168 days for refusing to reveal confidential sources to a federal grand jury.

The court’s decision was announced April 15 without explanation, which is customary.

Leggett was jailed in the Federal Detention Center in Houston on July 20, 2001, on a civil contempt charge after she refused to hand over and testify about four years of research into the 1997 shooting death of Houston socialite Doris Angleton.

Leggett argued that she was protected by a reporter’s constitutional privilege against revealing confidential sources, but two federal courts disagreed.

She was released on Jan. 4 when the grand jury’s term expired. Shortly after her release from jail, Leggett avoided another grand jury subpoena when a new grand jury indicted Robert Angleton for murder-for-hire in the death of his wife.

U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued to the Supreme Court that Leggett’s release from jail made her appeal moot. But Leggett countered that she could be subpoenaed to testify at Angleton’s trial and would face another contempt citation and more jail time if she did not comply.

Angleton has asked a federal district judge to dismiss the charges against him. He contends that the federal charges amount to double jeopardy, since a state court jury acquitted him of murder in 1998. A hearing is pending on Angleton’s motion to dismiss the charges.

Leggett’s appeal urged the Supreme Court to clarify the law surrounding a journalist’s First Amendment privilege to protect confidential sources. Federal courts apply the law unequally, resulting in disparate treatment for newsgatherers across the country, her appeal said.

She also argued that the subpoena, which sought all copies of her research, would leave her unable to work on her book. As such, the subpoena amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint, the appeal said.

Some press groups and media attorneys worried that the Supreme Court would strip reporters of rights they currently enjoy in some parts of the country if they agreed to hear Leggett’s appeal.

In the meantime, Leggett won a $25,000 prize in April in recognition of her First Amendment fight. The PEN American Center gave her the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.

“I’m just so glad there are people out there who realize how important the First Amendment is and have instituted this award to encourage others to furiously guard it and to realize that it’s something worth fighting for,” Leggett said.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press nominated Leggett for the award.

Judges praised the aspiring book author as “a powerful example of personal conviction and courage in the face of the most extreme pressure and a hero in the effort to preserve investigative freedom for writers and journalists in the U.S.” (Leggett v. United States) — MD