Appeals court says lawyer can criticize D.A. probe

Monday, March 9, 1998

NEW ORLEANS (AP)—Lawyer Roy Rodney has a free speech right to call a Baton Rouge prosecutor’s investigation of Mayor Marc Morial’s political organization “a politically motivated vendetta,” a state appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal last week reversed a contempt ruling issued by Baton Rouge District Judge Tim Kelly. Kelly last fall held Rodney in contempt and fined him $100 for his description of the probe by Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau.

Morial’s organization, LIFE, has been targeted by Moreau in his investigation of allegations of voter fraud stemming from the 1996 U.S. Senate race. Rodney represents LIFE.

Moreau has been probing allegations by losing candidate Woody Jenkins that voter fraud cost him the seat narrowly won by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. A Senate investigation last year concluded that Jenkins did not provide enough evidence to support his challenge, but Moreau has pressed on.

Morial applauded the 1st Circuit ruling and said it “quashes Doug Moreau’s tirade against New Orleans once and for all.”

Rodney said the ruling removes an undeserved stain from his record as a lawyer.

“The judge was wrong in misinterpreting the (U.S.) Constitution,” Rodney said of Kelly’s contempt citation. “A lawyer has the right to criticize the district attorney, especially given the history of the relationship between Moreau and Jenkins.”

Like Jenkins, Moreau is a Republican. Morial and Landrieu are Democrats.

Rodney has been the point man in LIFE’s fight against the Moreau investigation, contending that a Baton Rouge district attorney and grand jury have no jurisdiction over a New Orleans political group.

Moreau said he can pursue the investigation because his office has authority over state agencies in Baton Rouge that keep election records.

At one point last fall, LIFE refused to give the grand jury its financial records. But the organization honored demands for the documents after higher courts said it must comply, Rodney said.

In ruling for Rodney, the appeals court cited a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The high court reversed then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison’s conviction for criminal defamation for making disparaging remarks about the official conduct of the city’s Criminal Court judges. The high court said Garrison’s remarks were free speech protected by the First Amendment.