Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jewell battle over disclosure of sources, sanctions

Thursday, August 20, 1998

Richard Jewell...
Richard Jewell

Attorneys for Richard Jewell and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution continue to battle over whether the newspapers must disclose the identity of confidential law enforcement sources whose statements figure in Jewell's libel suit.

Jewell sued the Journal-Constitution in January 1997, alleging the papers had published defamatory statements about him when reporting that he was the lead suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park pipe bombing of July 1996.

The papers — the first to name Jewell as an F.B.I. suspect — wrote that investigators said Jewell “fit the profile of a lone bomber.” Jewell was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

The papers contend they should not have to disclose sources, basing their argument on reporter privilege and the First Amendment. Jewell contends the papers should not only be forced to disclose their sources, but also should be sanctioned for willfully violating the court's order to do so.

The case, Jewell v. Cox Enterprises, Inc., has produced a maze of procedural motions and appeals. Judge John R. Mather ruled on April 29 that the papers would have until June 1 to disclose their sources. The papers then filed an interlocutory appeal — an appeal filed before final judgment in order to resolve an important issue in a case, but not the outcome.

A trial judge has the power to decide whether to grant an interlocutory appeal so that the parties can argue the issue before a higher court. Mather denied the motion for an interlocutory appeal on May 7.

The newspapers then filed a notice of appeal on May 12 to the Georgia Court of Appeals, claiming they had the right to directly appeal Mather's decision that the papers must disclose the confidential sources. Certain discovery orders are so important, argued the newspapers' lawyers, that they must be allowed to appeal now rather than await the outcome of the libel suit.

The newspapers claim that they have the right to directly appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals under the collateral-order exception. A collateral appeal is an exception to the general rule that only final orders can be directly appealed to a higher court.

On May 14, Jewell's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the papers' collateral appeal, claiming the appeals court does not have the authority to consider it.

Mather rejected Jewell's dismissal motion on June 2. On Aug. 17, Jewell's attorneys filed another motion, asking Mather to reconsider his decision refusing to dismiss the papers' appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

In their recent motion, Jewell's attorneys wrote that “the court of appeals is without jurisdiction to consider Defendants' appeal” and that the trial judge has “sole authority” to dismiss the appeal.

Lin Wood, Jewell's lead attorney, said: “The trial court has the authority to dismiss this type of an appeal.

“The AJC's appeal will accomplish nothing but delay, and that is one of the papers' primary tactics in this case,” Wood said.

However, Peter Canfield, attorney for the AJC, disputes this, saying: “The reason we have appealed the judge's order to disclose sources is that we take very seriously any pledge of confidentiality made to a source.

“We have not sought to delay the resolution of this case,” Canfield said. “On the contrary, we have asked the court from the beginning to rule on the legal insufficiencies of Mr. Jewell's claims. It is well-established that a newspaper is entitled to accurately report on a government investigation.”

The parties are not only arguing over whether the newspapers can appeal directly to the Georgia Court of Appeals, but are also battling over the question of sanctions.

Attorneys for Jewell say the papers are engaging in delay tactics and want the judge to sanction the newspapers for violating the court's April discovery order.

In an order issued Aug. 6, Mather held up ruling on the motion for sanctions with respect to confidential sources pending a decision on the matter by the appeals court.

“The bottom line is that the judge said he will wait for the resolution of our appeal before he acts on the motion for sanctions,” Canfield said.

Wood says he has “no doubt in my mind” that the judge will eventually order the paper to pay sanctions for failing to obey the court's order.