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Media ban during jury selection overturned in Stewart case

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Media ban during jury selection overturned in Stewart case

  • A federal appeals court in New York City said a district court judge erred in banning reporters from witnessing the jury selection proceedings in Martha Stewart’s securities fraud trial.

Feb. 19, 2004 — In a major victory for the news media, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2nd Cir.) yesterday overturned a federal trial judge’s ruling that barred the press from attending jury selection proceedings in the securities fraud trial of Martha Stewart.

The three-judge panel unanimously ruled that excluding the press was not justified by the possibility — cited by Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum of U.S. District in Manhattan — that some prospective jurors might not be fully candid with reporters present.

“The mere fact that the suit has been the subject of intense media coverage is not sufficient to justify closure,” the appeals court ruled. “To hold otherwise would render the First Amendment right of access meaningless.”

Media attorney David Schulz argued the appeal on behalf of the 17 news organizations that challenged Cedarbaum’s ruling. The coalition included The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters, The Associated Press, and the major television networks, among others.

Schulz applauded the decision as “a ringing endorsement of the value of openness in the courts.” “The court squarely rejected the notion that jury selection can be closed simply because of media scrutiny,” he said.

Schulz added that the case “severely limits” the impact of a 1998 precedent in which the appeals court allowed restrictions on press access to jury selection in the fraud trial of boxing promoter Don King.

Cedarbaum had given the media access to transcripts of the jury selection proceedings instead of permitting live attendance. The appeals court rejected that compromise, saying transcripts are an inadequate substitute.

“Much of what makes good news is lost in the difference between a one-dimensional transcript and an opportunity to see and hear testimony as it unfolds,” the court said.

Yesterday’s decision has no direct impact on Stewart’s case, because a jury has already been picked and the trial is underway. But the panel said it had authority to decide the question because it is likely to arise in future cases.

(ABC, Inc., et al. v. United States; Media Counsel: David Schulz, Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz, New York City) JM

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