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News organizations seek to appeal secrecy order in fraud case

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News organizations seek to appeal secrecy order in fraud case

  • A New Jersey appeals court is considering the media’s request for immediate review of a decision denying access to files.

Sep. 9, 2003 — Three news organizations have sought to appeal an unusually broad secrecy order issued by a New Jersey trial judge in a fraud case against Prudential Insurance Co.

In his Aug. 7 ruling, Judge Theodore Winard denied requests by the three news organizations — ABC, Bloomberg News, and The (Hackensack, N.J.) Record — for access to files and proceedings. The judge then took the unusual step of sealing his opinion, and barred lawyers for the news groups from showing the opinion to their clients.

An attorney involved in the case said the media organizations have asked the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court for permission to appeal Winard’s ruling. Under New Jersey law, permission is needed because there is no automatic right to appeal an order that does not finally resolve a case.

“One of the primary checks on the judiciary is the logic of their work,” said Ronald K.L. Collins of the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. “Absent some way to test a judge’s reasoning and adherence to precedent, there is no meaningful ability to check on the judiciary for the public.”

Collins said judges have “less draconian” alternatives to sealing an entire opinion, such as redacting or omitting sensitive factual data while still publishing their legal reasoning.

Media lawyer Bruce Sanford, a partner at the Washington, D.C. office of Baker & Hostetler, said it is unusual, but not unprecedented, for a judge to bar attorneys from sharing an opinion with their clients. “I’ve seen it before, but we’ve often had success in getting it overturned as a prior restraint [on free speech],” Sanford said.

Because the case file has been sealed and a gag order imposed on the attorneys, details of the case are sketchy. According to a Sept. 5 report in the New Jersey Law Journal, the case involves allegations that Prudential manipulated an out-of-court arbitration program to prevent its employees from going public with allegations that the insurance giant engaged in “redlining” — that is, avoiding doing business in minority neighborhoods.

(Lederman v. Prudential Insurance Co.; Media Counsel: Nathan Siegel, ABC, Inc., Washington, D.C.; Bruce Rosen, McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen; Chatham, N.J.) JM

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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