Al Jazeera America-DirecTV Spat Paused Over New Judge | Courthouse News Service
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Al Jazeera America-DirecTV Spat Paused Over New Judge

LOS ANGELES (CN) - With DirecTV's contract case against it randomly reassigned in December, Al Jazeera America is exploring whether to disqualify the presiding judge.

Last year, DirecTV asked the court to award it $28 million in damages and allow it to drop Al Jazeera America from its channel line-up, alleging that the Qatar-based network had broken promises to air more than just traditional news programming.

In 2013, Al Jazeera America took Current TV's place on DirecTV's channel lineup after the news channel's $500 million acquisition of former Vice President Al Gore's company.

At a Tuesday morning hearing before Judge Samantha Jessner, attorneys were in court to discuss DirecTV's objections to Al Jazeera America's rebuttal to the cable company's allegations.

DirecTV had asked the court to sustain its demurrer, arguing that none of the channel's 24 defenses in its answer contained a "single supporting fact."

But Al Jazeera attorney Jeffery Rosenfeld, with DLA Piper, told Jessner that the court's decision to reassign the case had taken him by surprise. He asked the court to postpone the hearing.

"We're in a somewhat curious position this morning. We didn't realize this case had been transferred," Rosenfeld said, adding that he had only learned that the case had a new judge 20 minutes before the hearing.

"The only way I can approach this is to be straightforward about it," Rosenfeld said. "We want an opportunity to determine whether or not we can fully explore our position here, relative to this assignment."

"In other words, you want to file a 170.6," Jessner said. Under that section of the state's civil code, parties may move to remove a judge they believe is prejudiced against a party or an attorney.

Rosenfeld said both sides had previously filed similar motions. He added that he wasn't certain Al Jazeera would move to disqualify the judge but wanted to leave the door open.

"Nothing personal on this," Rosenfeld said.

"If I took that personally, I wouldn't get out of the house," Jessner said.

Jessner agreed to postpone the hearing to Jan. 20. Though the court showed the attorneys a tentative order the document is not yet publicly available, according to the court.

Rosenfeld declined to comment after the hearing.

The last notable action before Jessner took on the case came in November, when Judge Elizabeth Allen White denied DirecTV's motion to keep its $28 million lawsuit against Al Jazeera America secret.

"There is a huge, huge right for the public to be aware of what's going on in the litigation," White said at the time.

DirecTV filed a heavily redacted complaint against Al Jazeera America this past July. But on Nov. 3, it partially withdrew its motion to seal the complaint.

The attached complaint said DirecTV was suing Al Jazeera because the news channel broken promises to air more diverse content. According to DirecTV, before the nework - based in Doha, Qatar - bought out Current in 2013, Current had agreed to air lighthearted shows that had previously included "Current Hottie" and "Current Gigs."

"The programming on Al Jazeera America has remained a steady line-up of traditional-style news programs," the July 11, 2014 complaint states.

DirecTV's court filing adds that Al Jazeera breached provisions in a 10-year old affiliation agreement between DirecTV and Al Gore's Current TV to provide the cable provider with the best terms it offers to other distributors.

Last August, Current co-founders Gore and Democratic politician and businessman Joel Hyatt sued Al Jazeera in Delaware court for $65 million, claiming news network had unlawfully kept millions of dollars in escrow after the buyout.

In a September counterclaim, Al Jazeera said it needed to keep the money in reserve to defend against claims that arose after the sale, including the current dispute with DirecTV in Los Angeles.

Calling Gore's and Hyatt's lawsuit a "sham," the news network argued that Current had failed to comply with distribution agreements.

Rosenfeld was accompanied by DLA Piper attorney Andrew L. Deutsch. Kirkland & Ellis attorneys Shaun Paisley and Melissa Ingall appeared for DirecTV.Distributed in 60 million homes, Al Jazeera has failed to take off. After 14 months on the air, its ratings had fallen by almost 50 percent compared with its predecessor, The Wrap reported in late October.

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