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Tribune suit tossed from judge to judge

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Two federal judges have now recused themselves in the high-profile legal battle between the managers of the Salt Lake Tribune and the newspaper's current and former owners.

Friday morning, the case rested before U.S. District Chief Judge Dee Benson, who, according to his clerk, was not yet aware of the reassignment.

Judge Tena Campbell formally withdrew from the case Thursday, and it was quickly reassigned — by random draw — to Judge David Sam.

Sam, who also recused himself, is overseeing the criminal case against Olympic bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson which is scheduled to begin July 30 and last at least six weeks.

Judges are not required to explain their recusal decisions.

Campbell's recusal came just a few days after the Deseret News — the Tribune's partner in a joint operating agreement — asked to be made a party to the suit and then petitioned for its dismissal.

Attorneys are guessing that recusal is related to the fact that the Deseret News' attorneys for the case — David Jordan and Jill Pohlman — work for the same firm as Campbell's husband.

"I'm assuming she (recused herself) because her husband is a lawyer with Stoel Rives," Jordan said.

Tribune publisher Dominic Welch appeared disappointed by the recusals. "I've lost all faith in justice," he said. "It's more about who's available."

There are just eight federal judges in Utah, four of whom have senior status with reduced workloads.

Attorneys for the Tribune argued vigorously two weeks ago for a trial date in June 2002.

Magistrate Judge Samuel Alba, handling pre-trial motions, said Campbell had given him his "marching orders" that the trial was to be wrapped up before the end of July 2002.

The Tribune managers believe they have an option to buy the newspaper from MediaNews then.

Welch said that at least "theoretically" the next judge should "pick up and move forward."

"Still, this is not your typical case," Welch said.

Deseret News publisher Jim Wall said he's confident that his company's motions to intervene and then dismiss the case will be granted.

"We believe that will be the ruling, regardless of what judge hears it," he said. "It's not a matter of which judge."

Campbell has made two major rulings in the case since the suit was filed in December.

The first came before Denver-based MediaNews Group purchased the Tribune's holding company from AT&T Corp. in January. The Tribune managers attempted to block that sale, arguing that it would risk the Tribune's "independent voice."

Campbell disagreed and denied the request for a preliminary injunction.

But later she ruled in the Tribune's favor, saying MediaNews had overstepped its ownership rights when it made some changes to the JOA in early January.

Campbell returned Welch and Tribune chief operating officer Randy Frisch to the board of the Newspaper Agency Corporation — which administers the JOA — after MediaNews replaced them with its own representatives.

An appeal by MediaNews of that decision is pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The Tribune's lawsuit seeks a federal order declaring that the managers have the right to purchase the newspaper from MediaNews "free and clear of any liens, claims and encumbrances on behalf of" the Deseret News.

That is why, according to publisher Wall, the Deseret News is an indispensable party to the case. He says the JOA — which governs the joint advertising, printing and distribution functions of the newspapers — gives it the right to veto any future sale of the Tribune.

But the Deseret News' addition to the suit puts the cases' "subject matter jurisdiction" in question.

Federal judges hear civil cases when the opposing parties are from different states. If the Deseret News becomes a defendant in an action by the Tribune, the federal judge assigned to hear the case could determine that the case belongs before a state judge.

The Deseret News filed a lawsuit in 2nd District Court in David County in April, alleging the Tribune has tried to "stifle competition" and hinder its attempts to move from afternoon to morning publication.

Sale of the Salt Lake Tribune - Read Deseret News' archive stories and see related links about the sale of the Tribune.


E-MAIL: mtitze@desnews.com