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Variety of courts seek limits to juror coverage

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    NMU         ROUNDUP         Secret Courts         Sep 7, 2001    

Variety of courts seek limits to juror coverage

  • In the name of protecting the privacy of jurors, judges around the country are cutting off public access to information about the legal process.

A number of recent decisions from around the country reflect judges’ desires to protect the privacy of jurors.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in an unpublished opinion in People v. Ackerman that a judge’s order prohibiting journalists from photographing or filming jurors as they left a courtroom was a constitutional “time, place or manner” restriction. The court noted that jurors were given the option of staying to speak with the press or be escorted out of the building. Every juror chose to leave with the escort. Several news groups argued that the order was overbroad and unconstitutional, but the appellate court ruled that the judge did not prohibit reporters from contacting jurors once they were home. The court found that the order created a limited “waiting period” on contact and not a permanent ban. The court held that privacy concerns justified such a delay.

In New Jersey, Camden County Superior Court Judge Linda Baxter issued an order in July that barred journalists from publishing the identity of any juror or “descriptions that would reasonably identify any juror” in the murder trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander. The case — Neulander is accused of arranging for the murder of his wife — has received widespread publicity. Baxter’s order also barred the press from contacting or attempting to interview any juror or potential juror. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Associated Press challenged the order, arguing that it was an unconstitutional prior restraint. Baxter refused to vacate the order on Aug. 31 because she believed that potential jurors would not be candid in their responses during jury selection if they thought their statements might be reported. She said the potential lack of candor would violate the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

The Utah Judicial Council approved a new rule on Aug. 23 that would allow judges to withhold jurors’ names from the news media for five days after the end of a trial. The council has been considering the rule for a year, and, despite concerns that it would hinder newsgathering, the measure was passed to protect juror privacy. The Associated Press reported that there had been no known instances of jurors being harassed in Utah, but one council member said the rule was needed to prevent any potential trouble.

U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela issued an order in a product liability trial against Firestone that bars the media from contacting jurors unless a written request is submitted to the judge’s office for approval. The case, filed in federal court in Brownsville, Texas, was settled while the jury was deliberating. Even though the case has ended, jurors contacted by The Monitor of McAllen, Texas, won’t speak to the press, telling the newspaper that it would violate the Aug. 29 court order. The Monitor and the Associated Press filed a motion challenging the order, claiming that it was an unconstitutional prior restraint. Vela made an oral ruling on Aug. 31 denying the motion. The Associated Press reported that attorneys — and presumably, the public — are interested to know what the jurors thought of the case.


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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