Media denied access to sealed grand jury documents

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

A federal judge has denied a motion by several media organizations for access to sealed documents and hearings on efforts by President Clinton to assert executive privilege to shield aides from having to testify.

U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson denied the motion Feb. 27 but sealed her decision, said sources speaking on condition of anonymity.

Johnson ruled the media's request to open the records was moot because the president had not formally invoked executive privilege, a legal maneuver presidents use to protect the confidentiality of conversations and correspondence with top aides about military affairs and major policy decisions.

Attorneys for the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and three television networks filed the motion on Feb. 26.

“These privilege disputes concern issues of immediate and enduring public importance,” the motion stated. “They exist independent of the substance of any particular grand jury investigation and will endure long after the present controversy subsides.”

Questions such as the relative power of the White House, the independent counsel and the judiciary “go to the heart of our constitutional structure” and can be revealed without disclosing the contents of grand jury proceedings themselves.

Messages sent to the legal departments of both the Times and the Post have not been returned.

According to the Times, Johnson has instructed Clinton's lawyers and prosecutor Kenneth Starr to prepare to argue the issue of executive privilege before her, although it could not be learned if a date for such arguments had been set.

The White House has not officially acknowledged it is prepared to assert executive privilege because of its potent historical overtones and because it belies the president's claim that he is cooperating fully with Starr's inquiry, the Times reports.

Clinton, however, has retained a legal specialist in privilege claims, Neil Eggleston, a former associate in the White House counsel's office, to prepare briefs invoking privilege on the president's behalf.

Washington, D.C.-based Eggleston has not returned phone calls.

Johnson, the chief judge at the federal courthouse, is responsible for overseeing the grand jury investigating Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.