By MICHAEL R. SISAK Associated Press
MANHATTAN (AP) — An important pretrial hearing in Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault case will play out in secret after a judge ruled against news organizations fighting to keep the courtroom open.
Both the prosecution and defense had asked that Friday’s hearing, which will deal with trial strategy and potential witnesses, be held behind closed doors.
After hearing oral arguments, Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice James Burke ordered the press out of the courtroom for the remainder of the hearing. Burke declined to reschedule the hearing to give the press groups time to appeal.
Prosecutors said they wanted to protect Weinstein’s right to a fair trial and shield the identities of women who’ve accused the disgraced movie mogul of wrongdoing.
“We believe it is prudent for the court to exercise their discretion and close the court,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said.
Weinstein’s lawyers said news coverage could taint the jury pool. Behind closed doors, Friday’s hearing is expected to focus on some of the dozens of women who have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct but whose allegations haven’t led to criminal charges.
“The court cannot be complicit with the press in denying the defendant’s right to a fair trial,” Weinstein lawyer Marianne Bertuna said.
Lawyers for the news organizations, including The Associated Press and The New York Times, argued that the sides had not met the high legal standard for banning the media and the public.
Weinstein’s case is “a matter of immense and legitimate public interest,” and the allegations against him are already widely known, said Robert Balin, a lawyer representing the news organizations.
The sides asking for the courtroom to be closed are suggesting that “somehow it is improper for the press and the public to be sitting here and report news in real time,” even though that right is guaranteed by the Constitution, Balin argued.
A lawyer for Court TV and a reporter from New York magazine also argued in favor of keeping the courtroom open.
Weinstein himself was mum as he arrived at court. Asked how he was doing, he just nodded.
Weinstein, 67, is charged with raping an unidentified female acquaintance in his Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and performing a forcible sex act on a different woman in 2006.
Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex. He pleaded not guilty and is free on $1 million bail. His trial is scheduled to begin June 3.
Friday’s hearing will focus on a prosecution request to have some of his dozens of other accusers testify. Prosecutors want to show that Weinstein has had a history of violating women.
Suburban Philadelphia prosecutors used that strategy last year in convicting actor and comedian Bill Cosby at his sexual assault retrial.
Perhaps anticipating an onslaught of accusers taking the witness stand, Weinstein lawyer Jose Baez sent a letter this week to the lawyer for one of them, asking for emails he says show the woman acknowledged she had a consensual relationship with Weinstein.
Balin argued in a court filing his week that holding the hearing behind closed doors would do nothing to safeguard Weinstein’s right to a fair trial because allegations against him from more than 80 women have already been widely reported.
Many of those women, such as actresses Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, have agreed to be identified publicly.
“Clearly, there is no rational basis — let alone ‘compelling circumstances’ — that could justify the Parties’ effort to suppress this information now that it is in the public domain as a result of intensive news reporting,” Balin wrote in the filing.
Balin called closing the courtroom an “extreme remedy” and argued that as much as possible the hearing should be held in open court.
The news organizations are also requesting that documents filed under seal in the case be made public and that all future filings, even ones made under seal, be listed on the case docket so that “the public and press receive prompt notice that such materials exist.”