PENNSYLVANIA — A federal district judge’s reasoning in a criminal securities fraud case was not specific enough for him to justify sealing the voir dire transcript and restricting the use of juror-identifying information, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3d Cir.) held in late October.
Because of pre-trial publicity surrounding the early-June, 1993 securities fraud trial of Eddie Antar, founder of the Crazy Eddie Inc. retail electronics chain, Federal District Judge Nicholas Politan asked for a large pool of potential jurors. To make room for the large group, Politan asked reporters to leave the courtroom.
The reporters complied, but when an attorney for the Associated Press requested a list of juror names and addresses so reporters could request interviews after the trial, Politan sealed all court documents identifying the jurors.
The AP, the New Jersey Press Association and the Newark Morning Ledger Co. filed motions with the court late in July 1993 to obtain the jury list. Politan unsealed the records in mid-December 1993, almost five months after the jury convicted Antar of multiple counts of securities fraud.
Politan’s order releasing the record also restricted press access to jurors, however. The AP, the New Jersey Press Association and the Newark Morning Ledger Co. appealed the decision.
The appellate court reversed Politan’s order sealing the district court record, and reversed in part his restrictions on juror interviews. The appellate court called the sealing of the transcript premature, noting that the judge gave inadequate notice, did not hold a hearing, and did not enter factual findings into the record to support his rulings.
The Third Circuit said that a court may in certain circumstances impose restrictions similar to Politan’s. To do so, however, it must articulate specific threats to the integrity of the jury system, such as possible jury tampering.
The court noted that the presumption of openness in court proceedings that prior U.S. Supreme Court cases have recognized applies to the voir dire record transcript. The court also concluded that Politan’s eventual release of the documents did not “cure” the violation. Moreover, his restrictions on use of information from the transcript were too broad, considering the lack of a finding of threats of juror harassment.
An attorney for the AP told the Wall Street Journal that the wire service has not yet decided whether to seek a rehearing of the court’s holding that some circumstances might justify court restrictions on press access to jurors.
(United States v. Eddie Antar; Media Counsel: Donald Robinson, Newark; Thomas Cafferty, Somerset; David Shulz, New York City)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.