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Judge hearing two contempt cases won't recuse self

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  1. Prior Restraint
FOURTH CIRCUIT--Federal District Judge W. Earl Britt in Raleigh refused in mid-October to remove himself from a case in which…

FOURTH CIRCUIT–Federal District Judge W. Earl Britt in Raleigh refused in mid-October to remove himself from a case in which he has ordered a newspaper reporter to identify the confidential sources who revealed the amount of a sealed settlement agreement in a toxic contamination case. The newspaper wanted Britt to recuse himself and had argued that he was too involved in the case to remain impartial.

Britt also refused to either stay enforcement or expedite the newspaper’s appeal of the September order that demanded the confidential information be revealed.

Britt ordered Wilmington Morning Star reporter Cory Reiss to reveal the names of his sources by October 20. On October 19, Reiss refused to name his sources and asked Britt not to enforce the order until the First Amendment issues raised in his case and in a related case — involving another Morning Star employee’s contempt conviction for printing materials from the same settlement agreement — are resolved on appeal. As of late October, Britt had not responded to Reiss’ request.

The order demanding Reiss’ confidential sources stems from a lawsuit over the alleged toxic contamination of a mobile home park. That lawsuit ultimately led to a $36 million settlement. The settlement was sealed by the court, but a court employee inadvertently provided a copy to Kirsten Mitchell, the Raleigh bureau chief for the Wilmington Morning Star. Britt convicted Mitchell and the newspaper of contempt in January for violating the court-ordered confidentiality of the sealed agreement by printing information contained in that agreement and fined the paper $500,000. Britt also acquitted Reiss of contempt charges at that time. A federal court of appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) heard oral arguments on Mitchell’s case on October 27.

After acquitting Reiss and convicting Mitchell and the paper of contempt in January, Britt asked Reiss for the names of confidential sources who revealed or verified the amount of the sealed settlement agreement for the Morning Star. Britt said that the court had an interest in determining whether Reiss’ sources were parties to the toxic tort case, who would have violated a gag order by speaking to Reiss.

Reiss had requested in mid-September that Britt remove himself from any further proceedings, arguing that Britt had been secretly questioning court employees about Reiss’ sources and had become too close to the case to remain objective or fair. (Ashcraft v. Conoco, Inc.; Media Counsel; Mark Prak, Raleigh)