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Trials of former governor yield gag order, sealed documents

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         LOUISIANA         Secret Courts         Feb 17, 2000    

Trials of former governor yield gag order, sealed documents

  • News organizations continue to challenge secrecy orders in the trials of former Gov. Edwin Edwards on charges of insurance fraud and riverboat gambling license manipulation.

The multiple trials involving former Gov. Edwin Edwards have generated a plethora of First Amendment conflicts, including gag orders on the trial participants and the filing of trial documents under seal.

Edwards is one of seven defendants facing federal criminal charges for allegedly rigging the licensing process for gambling on riverboats. He is also one of the defendants who was indicted in September 1999 on charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, insurance fraud and witness tampering in connection with a 1996 insurance liquidation settlement.

In the gambling trial, nine news media entities filed a motion with Baton Rouge federal District Court Judge Frank Polozola on Feb. 10 requesting that Polozola revoke a prior order that forces all parties in the case to file documents to be used in the trial under seal, according to The (Baton Rouge) Advocate. The motion was filed by the Advocate, WGNO-TV, WVUE-TV, WWL-TV, the Times-Picayune Publishing Corp., the Gannett River States Publishing Corp., the Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association.

On Feb. 8, Polozola ruled that a local television station could not get copies of two tape recordings played in open court. On Jan. 7, he had ordered defense lawyers and prosecutors to file all documents under seal during the trial.

The media entities’ motion claims that Polozola’s orders unconstitutionally infringe on the media’s First Amendment rights. “The public deserves to be fully informed about this important public trial involving allegations of corruption against government officials and their business associates,” the Advocate quotes the motion as stating. “The constitutional case for openness is nowhere greater than in a case like this one where elected officials — past and present — stand accused of abusing the public trust.”

The motion requests that Polozola unseal documents filed before the Jan. 7 blanket order and give the public access to transcripts of closed courtroom proceedings about the jury, according to the Advocate.

Polozola has previously clashed with the media over access to the courtroom. Following a request by federal prosecutors for an anonymous jury, Polozola held a closed hearing and then apparently granted the motion, according to the Advocate. The newspaper reports that jurors in the case are being identified only by juror numbers.

“It is our belief . . . that a blanket sealing order which requires the sealing of every document filed in this trial cannot be justified under existing case law,” Advocate attorney Lloyd Lunceford told the newspaper.

WVUE-TV had earlier requested that Polozola release copies of tape recordings played during the trial of FBI wiretaps of Edwards’ home telephone and law office. Polozola’s ruling states that in this case the general right to inspect and copy public court records is trumped by the defendants’ rights to a fair trial. He stated that he had not restricted the media’s access to the trial, pleadings or evidence. He quoted a 1981 federal appellate court decision that stated, “It is better to err, if err we must, on the side of generosity in the protection of a defendant’s right to a fair trial before an impartial jury.”

In the criminal insurance fraud trial, Edwards co-defendant Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown unsuccessfully sought to have Polozola lift the gag order on all participants and has filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.). Brown has been supported by friend-of-the-court briefs from the Times Picayune Publishing Corp., the Associated Press, Capital City Press Inc., Gannett River States Publishing Corp., WDSU-TV, WGNO-TV, WWL-TV, WVUE-TV and the Louisiana Press Association.

As Brown appealled the order, the Associated Press reported that prosecutors want Polozola to find Edwards in contempt of court for violating the gag order. According to AP, prosecutors are complaining about Edwards’ comments to newspapers and television stations that prosecutors refused to negotiate with him because “they do not like the truth.”

In a Feb. 3 order rejecting Brown’s attempts to lift the gag order, Polozola stated that he “must consider the effect that unrestricted public comments may have on jury [selection] in this case as well as the fair trial rights of all parties.” The order cited a U.S. Supreme Court discussion of the lower standard for regulating the free speech rights of lawyers involved in a trial versus the more stringent standard for any attempt to regulate the media’s free speech rights.

As support for the decision, Polozola cited the threat of excessive pretrial publicity, the existence of two other trials involving Edwards and the parties’ previously demonstrated desire to “manipulate media coverage to gain favorable attention.” Polozola concluded that the gag order is constitutional because it allows Brown to continue to exercise his ongoing duties as an elected official.

(United States v. Edwards; Media Counsel: Lloyd Lunceford, Baton Rouge, et al.)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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