NEW ORLEANS (Sept. 27, 2001) — Media organizations have no unalienable right of access to jurors in a court case after it has been tried, a three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in the aftermath of a lawsuit involving Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
The Associated Press, the Houston Chronicle and the McAllen, Texas, Monitor petitioned the New Orleans federal appeals court to overturn the ruling of Judge Filemon Vela, of the federal district court in McAllen, to seal the names of jurors in the case filed by Joel Rodriguez against Bridgestone/Firestone.
Joel Rodriguez, his son Joelito and brother Jorge were all injured, and his wife, Marisa, left wheelchair-bound, in the rollover accident of the family's Ford Explorer on a Texas highway. The Rodriguezes and Bridgestone/Firestone settled for approximately $7.5 million late in August, just as the jury in Judge Vela's court had entered its fourth day of deliberations. The family had earlier settled with Ford Motor Co. for an estimated $6 million.
Attorneys for the Rodriguez family argued to the appeals court against allowing media access to the jurors.
“Because the jurors have already told the district court they do not want to share their thoughts about the trial, the media is not being prevented from gathering any news,” they said in a brief to the court. “The constitutional right to gather news does not guarantee a right to access information that is not available to the public at large, such as the jurors' private thoughts about the trial.”
Bridgestone/Firestone, on the other hand, insisted it was not a party to the issue of media access to jurors, and filed a brief only because it was directed to do so by the appeals court.
“Firestone has no objection—indeed, would welcome—permitting any person, including the media, to discuss the case with any of the jurors who are willing to discuss it,” the tire maker said.
Making its ruling Sept. 25, the judicial panel said Judge Vela's 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.”
The Associated Press will not appeal the ruling, according to Dave Tomlin, assistant to the president of the AP.
“We were very disappointed, but not completely surprised,” Mr. Tomlin said. “The court has generally allowed trial judges great latitude in raising barriers to post-trial contact with jurors.”