Media file emergency appeal for access to Starr hearings

Tuesday, March 17, 1998

Kenneth Starr...
Photo by AP
Kenneth Starr

WASHINGTON (AP) — Twelve news organizations filed an emergency appeal March 16 seeking public access to hearings related to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Clinton.

A legal brief submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals asserted that U.S. district court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who closed a hearing March 12 involving leaks to the news media, had made “a mockery of the First Amendment.”

The appellate court was requested to order Johnson to open future hearings that do not involve secret grand jury material, and to provide advance notice of proceedings so that media lawyers can argue against closing them.

That hearing was on a petition by Clinton’s private lawyer, David Kendall, and Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, to hold Starr responsible for leaks of grand jury material. Starr, who has denied the accusation, had to show cause why he should not be held in contempt.

Johnson “violated the First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings,” the pleading contended, even though none of the attorneys involved had asked that the hearing be closed.

“No advance notice was given to the public either that the hearing had been scheduled, or that the court was considering conducting the hearing behind closed doors,” the petition said.

When the news media learned of the hearing, a petition was filed to open the proceedings and the media lawyers were ready to argue the point at the outset of the hearing. The judge closed the proceeding anyway, ruling that the petition was premature since Starr and the president had not responded to the motion.

By providing no prior notice of hearings, the judge “has created a bizarre ‘Catch 22′ that will almost always result in the rejection of petitioners’ requests for public access as being either too early to too late,” the filing said.

“The district court’s actions … turned the presumption of public access on its head,” the media lawyers argued, by acting “as if all hearings relating in any way to the independent counsel’s investigation are presumptively closed.”

The organizations in the case are Dow Jones & Co.; The Los Angeles Times; ABC; Associated Press; CNN; CBS; Fox News Network; NBC; The New York Times; Time Inc.; USA TODAY and The Washington Post.

Related stories:

  • Media denied access to sealed grand jury documents 3.10.98