In a ruling that The Legal Intelligencer says could have far-reaching effects on the handling of high-profile trials, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled Friday that the news media have a presumptive right of access to the names of jurors. The court said a Pittsburgh federal judge erred when he sought to empanel an anonymous jury in the corruption trial of former Allegheny County coroner Cyril Wecht. “The prospect that the press might publish background stories about the jurors is not a legally sufficient reason to withhold the jurors’ names from the public. Although such stories might make some jurors less willing to serve or more distracted from the case, this is a necessary cost of the openness of the judicial process,” wrote 3rd Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith.
Dissenter Franklin Van Antwerpen said the ruling “effectively creates a new constitutional right” and “sets a precedent of permitting our court to micro-manage trial procedures established by the district courts.” He said “requiring district courts to bow to media demands to know the names of prospective jurors would certainly impair the public good in many cases.” Today, the same three-judge panel is scheduled to hear oral arguments on whether all charges against Wecht should be dismissed on double jeopardy grounds as a result of the procedures followed by the trial judge in declaring a mistrial in April when the jury said it was deadlocked.