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Media has right to know who sits in the jury box, appellate court rules

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A federal district court judge in Pennsylvania who agreed to seat an anonymous jury in a corruption trial was wrong…

A federal district court judge in Pennsylvania who agreed to seat an anonymous jury in a corruption trial was wrong to do so because the media has the right to know juror names, an appeals court has ruled.

In a 118-page ruling filed Friday, elaborating on a brief emergency order overturning the proposed anonymity of a jury back in January, Judge D. Brooks Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) wrote that juror names have been part of the public court record going back centuries. Trial judges must articulate specific reasons to empanel them anonymously, in the rare cases where it may be called for, Smith wrote.

"The prospect that the press might publish background stories about the jurors is not a legally sufficient reason to withhold the jurors’ names from the public," the opinion says. "Although such stories might make some jurors less willing to serve or more distracted from the case, this is a necessary cost of the openness of the judicial process."

The ruling comes as federal districts around the country wrestle with secrecy in the jury box. In the wake of a 2003 U.S. Judicial Conference recommendation that juror names be withheld until the end of trial, some jurisdictions have clamped down totally on jury rosters. Both federal districts in Kentucky have moved toward total juror anonymity, in the face of criticism from First Amendment and open-court advocates.

The question of whether the public has a right to know who sits in the jury box is, as Smith wrote, a relatively new one; instances of juror anonymity were rare before the 1970s. But they have become incrementally more routine as courts grapple with issues of witness intimidation and identity theft.

Smith found that there was nothing so unusual about the case of Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht that it would have warranted an anonymous jury, as it was about to when several news groups stepped in to complain. Jury selection was due to begin in Wecht's fraud case when, according to The Legal Intelligencer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WPXI filed an emergency appeal on the anonymity issue.

On Jan. 9, the appellate court sided with the media and overturned the district judge's ruling that the jury would be anonymous.

In the follow-up published opinion, Smith was unimpressed with the lower court's rationale that the jury might be threatened during the course of the trial: "In fact, the District Court’s reasoning would justify anonymity in virtually every jury trial, whether or not it attracts media attention, since almost all defendants have friends and enemies who might be inclined to influence jurors."

In dissent, Senior 3rd Circuit Judge Franklin Van Antwerpen wrote that Smith had carved out a new constitutional right in the access he would give the media to juror names. Van Antwerpen gave more credit to the notion that changing technology and the media culture surrounding the justice system warrant more protection of jurors.