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Justices decline Louisiana official's case challenging gag order

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    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Prior Restraints         Jan 29, 2001    

Justices decline Louisiana official’s case challenging gag order

  • Appeal sought a uniform federal standard for instituting gag orders on trial participants.

Without explanation, the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 16 declined to review a Louisiana official’s appeal of a gag order imposed during his trial for insurance fraud.

Charging that the gag order was a violation of his free speech rights, Insurance Commissioner James H. Brown sought to have the Court create a uniform standard for applying gag orders in all federal appellate courts. Brown argued that a gag order should be issued only when outside commentary presents a “clear and present danger” to a fair trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) previously rejected Brown’s challenge and held that a federal district court can issue a gag order when there is a “substantial likelihood” that the judicial process will be impeded.

“It’s the first time a court has said that a gag order is constitutional when it prevents a defendant from commenting publicly when the government brings an indictment,” defense attorney William Jeffress Jr. said after the ruling.

Brown, along with former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and attorney Ronald Weems, was indicted for insurance fraud in September 1999. U.S. District Judge Frank Poloza quickly issued a gag on all the parties.

Poloza temporarily lifted the order while Brown embarked on his re-election campaign, but reissued the order after the election.

Although acquitted of the insurance fraud charges, Brown was convicted on seven counts of making false statements to the FBI. John P. Elwood, Brown’s attorney, said that since the gag order expired after Brown’s conviction, the Supreme Court may have declined the case because it considered the issue moot.

(Brown v. United States; Counsel: John P. Elwood; Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, Washington, D.C.) ML

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