The corruption trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich won’t wrap up for another several weeks, at the earliest.
But an interesting legal issue has popped up in the middle of the trial, one that has little to do with Blago’s guilt or innocence. The issue: whether names and addresses of the jurors should be withheld from the public during the trial. It’s a question that’s popping up frequently in courthouses across the country. Nathan Koppel and I examine the issue in Monday’s WSJ.
It is difficult to quantify how often judges have shielded jurors’ names from the public. It’s happened periodically in extremely high-profile cases, like OJ Simpson’s criminal trial and recent terrorism cases. But legal experts say the pervasiveness of the Internet and bloggers, an increasingly hungry press and the rise of witness and juror intimidation are leading more judges to grant anonymity to jurors during trial, and in some cases, after.
Free speech advocates and members of the media say the trend runs counter to the way trials have historically been held and in some circumstances, the U.S. Constitution.
In the Blagojevich corruption case, Chicago federal judge James Zager ruled in May that juror names would stay out of the public out of concern that bloggers and others would try to contact jurors during the trial, which started last month. Earlier this month, Judge Frank Easterbrook, writing for a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit, acknowledged the risk that media questions could prompt the jurors to do their own research on the case, but sit still ordered the judge to reconsider his ruling after several media outlets complained. Judge Zager is to hold a status hearing on the matter Monday.
The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t given specific guidance on jury anonymity. So the approach has varied widely from state to state, county to county.
Some say that little is lost by shielding identities from the public during trial.
Yet media lawyers and free-speech activists argue the press can play a vital role in ensuring a jury’s integrity. In 2006, for example, the Chicago Tribune broke news during the criminal trial of Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, that two jurors had lied about their criminal records on jury questionnaires. The judge dismissed the jurors but if the facts had been revealed after the trial, the judge might have had to retry the case. “Perfect example,” said Daglish. “When the public gets information, people uncover things.”