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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the public’s right to information about jurors in federal courts.
“Public access to juror information is a critical part of an open and transparent criminal justice system,” argued NEFAC in the Feb. 9 brief.
The coalition added that “hindering and delaying access to juror identities is contrary to the democratic norms of transparency and accountability inherent in the American criminal justice system.”
A judge in U.S. v. Chin, a case heard in a Massachusetts federal court last year, denied a motion made by WBUR-Boston to release the names and street addresses of all jurors, information that is typically released upon a verdict.
Instead, the judge allowed only names and hometowns — not specific street addresses — to be released after the sentencing which could occur months after the verdict. The judge cited privacy concerns in his decision, but didn’t provide any specific circumstances in the case to warrant such concern.
In its brief NEFAC argued against such secrecy, explaining the public interest at stake and the benefits of being able to identify jurors. Sigmund Schutz, a NEFAC board member and attorney at Preti Flaherty, and Nashwa Gewaily, NEFAC’s media and First Amendment attorney, drafted the brief on behalf of the coalition.
Joining NEFAC were Gatehouse Media, Keene Sentinel, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MaineToday Media, New England Newspaper & Press Association, New England Society of News Editors, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Union Leader Corporation.
“This is an opportunity to remind the court how necessary this information is to the public,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “By knowing the identities of jurors, we are able to maintain integrity in our courts. There is simply no place for this type of secrecy within our judicial system.”
NEFAC provided in the brief several examples of how juror information could help news organizations uncover improprieties in the court system. At one of several federal trials of mobster John Gotti, for example, the trial court’s decision to impanel an anonymous jury prevented prosecutors and the public from discovering that one of the jurors had ties to organized crime.
The coalition explained that access to juror identities and resulting juror interviews has resulted in legislative reforms. Limiting and delaying access is also unnecessary and ineffective to protect juror privacy, the main concern articulated by the judge in denying WBUR’s motion.
“[D]elays and obstacles to access to juror information are not in the public interest,” NEFAC argued. “Timely access is in the public interest. This is especially so for the news media and by extension the public watching, listening to, and reading the news.”
NEFAC regularly drafts and joins amicus briefs to defend First Amendment freedoms. Most recently the coalition argued against indiscriminate record sealing and advocated for immediate access to civil court documents, access to private email accounts under Vermont’s public records law, the right to record police activity and the preservation of anti-SLAPP laws.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.