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Review of order penalizing station over negative story denied

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From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 40.

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 40.

The Texas Supreme Court refused on May 11 to review the constitutionality of a Dallas trial judge’s decision to deny a television station permission to videotape a court case allegedly because the television station had previously broadcast stories critical of the judge.

The nine-member court denied the petition for review without comment. Justice Nathan L. Hecht, joined by Justice Priscilla Owen, dissented from the denial of review, noting that the trial court’s order “may be a significant intrusion on KTVT’s constitutional rights” and the high court’s summary denial of review was “inexplicable.”

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KTVT Channel 11 in the Dallas/Fort Worth area broadcast an investigative news feature in November 1997 entitled “Judgment Day” that criticized the work habits of a number of criminal court judges in Dallas County, including Judge Robert Pruitt.

The broadcast, which later won a local Emmy award, triggered a dispute between the criminal district judges and the county commissioners over access to records showing when judges entered and left their parking garage.

In April 1998, Pruitt and another judge sued KTVT for defamation. That suit remains pending in the trial court.

In July 1999, KTVT requested permission from Pruitt’s court coordinator to film criminal proceedings in the courtroom through a window in the back door. In so doing, KTVT followed the usual procedure in Pruitt’s court for obtaining permission to film proceedings. The court coordinator advised KTVT that Pruitt would not grant the permission requested because KTVT had broadcast stories critical of judges.

A KTVT film crew went to the courthouse to videotape a criminal defendant as he walked through a hallway and into Judge Pruitt’s courtroom. While they were there, the bailiff in Pruitt’s court told a film crew from another television station that it could film through the back door as long as it was “not from Channel 11.” Altogether, three television stations other than KTVT were permitted to film through the back door.

KTVT then filed a motion requesting that Pruitt reconsider his order barring the station from filming proceedings through the courtroom door. Pruitt denied the motion, stating from the bench, “I don’t think KTVT is a reputable news organization, and as such, I’m not going to allow you to film.”

KTVT responded by filing a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court. It argued that Pruitt’s refusal to allow the station to broadcast through the courtroom window violated its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The sole issue presented in the petition for mandamus was whether a judge can allow some television stations to film courtroom proceedings but refuse permission to one station singled out because it has allegedly broadcast news stories critical of the judge.

On May 11, the Texas Supreme Court declined to review the petition without issuing an opinion, denying the request for temporary relief as moot. But Justice Nathan Hecht, joined by Justice Priscilla Owen, dissented from the denial. “The press has a presumptive right of access to criminal proceedings that is guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” Hecht noted. “That right can be denied only if, according to the United States Supreme Court, ‘the denial is necessitated by a compelling governmental interest, and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.’ KTVT has demonstrated that Judge Pruitt denied it the same access to criminal proceedings in his court that he allowed other television stations in retaliation for KTVT’s broadcast that was critical of him and other judges.”

Hecht then noted that KTVT’s contentions that its constitutional rights had been abridged by Pruitt’s actions were “serious arguments that relate to the important right of the press to report on proceedings in the courts.” Hecht stated that given Pruitt’s statements about his assessment of the quality of the television station’s journalism, the violation of KTVT’s rights would be ongoing, even if the trial that it had initially attempted to cover had long since concluded. Therefore, according to Hecht, any arguments that the station’s petition was moot were incorrect.

Hecht concluded his dissent by stating that he believed the court had not fulfilled its constitutional obligations by refusing to review Pruitt’s actions. “Judge Pruitt’s order may be a significant intrusion on KTVT’s constitutional rights,” Hecht wrote. “I would grant the petition, hear oral argument, and decide the case on the merits. This Court’s summary denial of KTVT’s petition, given the significance of the press’s interest here, is to me inexplicable.”