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News media can name jury members, if they can find them

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         FIFTH CIRCUIT         Secret Courts         May 8, 2001    

News media can name jury members, if they can find them

  • Although a federal appeals court upheld a judge’s order keeping jurors anonymous, it also said that stopping journalists from reporting the names if they obtained them independently was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) handed down both a win and a loss to several media organizations on May 1.

One ruling from the three-judge panel kept anonymous the identities of the jury members who convicted Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown. The second ruling said the warning issued to journalists by a lower court was unconstitutional. Last August, the lower court had told journalists to respect its decision and not to circumvent it by otherwise obtaining the jurors’ names.

In overturning part of the district court decision, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the warning to the media constituted an unconstitutional restraint on newsgathering. The appeals court ruling means the media is free to report the names of the jurors so long as they are not acquired from the court records.

An attorney representing the media said allowing reporters to do their job was the most important part of the ruling.

“I think the court did vindicate our position that prior restraint on the media’s lawful newsgathering activities is not going to be permitted,” James R. Swanson said to The Associated Press.

The appeals court said the order keeping the jurors’ identities secret could stand because it protects them from harassment. “The judge’s power to prevent harassment and protect juror privacy does not cease when the case ends,” Judge Edith Jones wrote in the opinion.

Also, the appeals court rejected arguments that the anonymous jury and gag orders violated the constitutional requirement of a public criminal trial.

The Advocate, The Associated Press, The Times -Picayune, WDSU-TV and the Louisiana Press Association challenged the judges’s orders after the trial ended last October.

Brown was sentenced to six months in prison and a $50,000 fine for lying to an FBI agent about the liquidation of a failed insurance company. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards and Shreveport lawyer Ronald Weems were acquitted in the case.

(U.S. v. Brown; Media Counsel: James Richard Swanson, Loretta Gallaher Mince, Correro, Fishman, Haygood, Phelps, Walmsley & Casteix, New Orleans, La.; Lloyd J. Lunceford, Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips, Baton Rouge, La.; Mary Ellen Roy, David L. Patron, Sheryl A. Odems, Phelps Dunbar, New Orleans, La.) EH

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