NEW ORLEANS An appeals court panel has denied petitions filed by several news organizations, including the Associated Press, seeking to overturn a federal judge's order that restricts contact with jurors in a lawsuit involving Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
In upholding a lower court order, the three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 24 that the order was "narrowly tailored to avoid abuse of members of the trial jury, all of whom have told the court they do not wish to communicate with the media."
First Amendment experts said they were dismayed by the ruling, which they said follows a trend in the 5th Circuit to limit the media's newsgathering rights.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press based in Washington, D.C., called the ruling "appalling."
"It's a terrible decision. Judges are going to run amok more than they have and try to isolate the American public from people who make decisions," Dalglish said. "To ban one citizen from contacting another citizen, you can't tell me that's constitutional."
The news organizations filed the petitions after U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela filed an order Aug. 29 prohibiting individuals from contacting jurors in the case without submitting a written application and receiving specific approval from the court.
The news organizations challenged the order, claiming it violated the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of the press and unobstructed access to information.
The Monitor of McAllen filed the initial petition. The AP and Houston Chronicle then filed an amended petition.
"We're disappointed," said Julia Youngman, an attorney for Freedom Communications LLP, The Monitor's parent company.
She said the "order was too broad and unconstitutional."
Mark Cannan, an attorney for the San Antonio Express-News, said the federal appeals court ruled similarly in a criminal case against former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. In that case, the panel upheld a judge's order barring the release jurors' names.
The trend in the 5th Circuit has been "of a misplaced concern over perceived rights of a jury," said Cannan, adding that jurors may refuse to speak to reporters, so they need no court protection.
John Lumpkin, the AP bureau chief for Texas, said the AP was not inclined to challenge the decision, but he added, "We continue to be disturbed by these judicial actions."
Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone settled the case with the family of Marisa Rodriguez for a reported $7.5 million as the federal jury began its fourth day of deliberations in the first case to go to trial since a massive Firestone tire recall.
The panel had been considering to what degree Bridgestone/Firestone was responsible for the March 2000 crash of a Ford Explorer that left the 40-year-old woman brain-damaged. Ford Motor Co. had settled previously with the family and was not a defendant in the case.
When the settlement was announced, Vela recommended that jurors not talk about the case, saying it would affect pending lawsuits. He also sealed their names.
In another high-profile case in Texas, state District Judge Belinda Hill recently limited media contact with jurors who ruled Sept. 22 that Andrea Yates was competent to stand trial on allegations that she drowned her five children. The judge ordered that members of the jury may be interviewed after the final verdict is delivered in the Houston mother's criminal trial.
Hill said interviewing the jurors from her competency hearing "would generate pretrial publicity that would interfere with the defendant's right to a fair trial by an impartial jury."