Facebook Twitter

Is Constitution violated when courts try to ban post-verdict interviews of jurors?

SHARE Is Constitution violated when courts try to ban post-verdict interviews of jurors?

Some judges think jurors need protection from journalists and are willing to squelch free-speech rights to provide it. Will justice be helped or harmed?

Post-verdict interviews are commonplace - jurors who served in such high-profile cases as the O.J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh and "Boston nanny" Louise Woodward trials gained fleeting fame by recounting how they made their decisions.But a corresponding judicial trend now is taking hold - banning such news media efforts.

"In the name of juror privacy, some courts are becoming overprotective," said Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "They tend to discount the fact that some jurors might want to talk to the news media."

She believes some public accounts of jury deliberations appalled some judges and sparked concern about protecting the justice system's image. "Some judges are hunkering down," she said.

A case in point is being litigated in Louisiana. Journalists have been barred from interviewing people who served as jurors in the federal corruption trial of two former state senators.

In issuing her order last month, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said deliberations of future juries could be stifled if jurors knew they might be questioned later.

Her order apparently leaves ex-jurors free to talk about any aspect of their jury duty as long as they do not do so in news media interviews.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge's order, but two newspapers - The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and The Advocate of Baton Rouge - are asking the full 5th Circuit court to study the case.

"We think hearing ordinary people talk about how this process works will be either reassuring or educational about what needs to be changed," said Jack Weiss, a lawyer for the two newspapers. "These interviews lead to a better understanding and enhanced public acceptance of controversial verdicts and the operation of our ju-di-cial system generally."

His appeal to the full appeals court calls Judge Vance's order "a direct prior restraint on press speech" in violation of the Constitution's First Amendment.

The appeal argues that the order conflicts with a 1982 ruling in which the 5th Circuit court said restrictions on post-verdict juror interviews are justified only to prevent a substantial threat to the justice system.

Weiss contends that interviews are a form of speech, and stays away from portraying the dispute as one of news media "access" to former jurors.

It is sound strategy. Courts traditionally take a dim view of the media's constitutional claims of access but also disfavor most governmental attempts to bar speech before it occurs.

This time, the governmental censors are the courts themselves.

First Amendment expert Martin Redish, a Northwestern University law professor, calls the no-interview order "nonsense," adding, "If intended to protect against harassment, it's clearly too broad."

What about former jurors being harassed by journalists? "No one is arguing that courts cannot step in and deal with abuses," Weiss said.

Indeed, the two newspapers do not seek a right to call former jurors three times a week and badger them into talking. "It's not unusual for judges to remind jurors they don't have to speak to us," said Linda Lightfoot, executive editor of The Advocate. "What we claim is a right to talk to those jurors who want to talk to us."