In a decision that ought to trouble anyone who believes in a free press, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that judges can keep the names of jurors a secret if there is some reason to think that revealing their identities could put them in danger.
Jonathan Saltzman reports in the Globe today that the unanimous decision, written by Justice Judith Cowin, came in response to an order by Bristol Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson, who sought to protect jurors sitting on a gang-related murder trial. The defendant, Manuel Silva, was acquitted, and The Standard-Times of New Bedford was turned down when it sought the names of jurors who had sat on the trial.
Obviously the problem Nickerson sought to address is real. But are we to allow secret juries to decide whether to send someone to prison? How would we ever know what had gone on during jury deliberations without the media’s being able to contact jurors once a trial has concluded? What about when something goes wrong? Who’s going to tell us?
What’s especially troublesome about this ruling is that it sounds as though Nickerson didn’t make much of an attempt to determine whether his order was even necessary, deciding on his own that two shootings that took place before and after the trial were related to the murder case. Saltzman writes:
Anthony C. Savastano, who represented the Standard-Times Publishing Co. in the appeal, criticized the decision and said the court accepted at face value unconfirmed police accounts that both shootings were linked to the trial of Silva, a reputed gang member from the Monte Park area of New Bedford.
Savastano said Nickerson should have held a hearing to determine whether the shootings were related to the case and sealed records only if he saw a “compelling government interest,” which Savastano characterized as a higher standard than good cause.
He questioned Nickerson’s concern for jurors’ safety, saying the judge took no action until a Standard-Times reporter requested the names in hope of interviewing jurors after the verdict. The judge then sealed them, Savastano said.
“This was not a case where the judge was overly concerned with jurors’ safety so he, on his own, impounded the jury list,” he said.
In today’s Standard-Times, Rob Margetta reports that the paper’s editors had no intention of publishing the names, but that they balked at a demand from Judge Nickerson that they sign a pledge to that effect in advance:
Managing Editor Dan Rosenfeld said the newspaper told Judge Nickerson about that policy when it made its initial request. But, he said, the judge wanted The Standard-Times to sign an agreement binding it from printing the names before he would give them out.
“I could not agree to a prior restraint,” Mr. Rosenfeld said. “We could only tell him that it is not our policy to print the names. That was not good enough for him.”
Later, Margetta continues, the paper did agree to that request — but, by then, it was too late.
Robert Ambrogi posts the text of the SJC decision here.
I doubt many people are going to be sympathetic to The Standard-Times. Former Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran was chortling about it on his WRKO Radio (AM 680) show this morning.
But there needs to be some way for the press to perform its watchdog role without endangering the lives of jurors. I’m not sure how that balance ought to be struck. But it certainly seems to me that Judge Nickerson and the SJC got it wrong.