Third Circuit Keeps Bridgegate Names Secret

     (CN) — As the Garden State gears up for a trial on its most newsworthy traffic jam, the Third Circuit blocked press outfits Wednesday from penetrating a logjam of courtroom secrecy.
     Three years have passed since public officials shut down several lanes of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey — triggering enduring backlash against the state’s Gov. Chris Christie, who saw one of his aides among the three people indicted.
     Federal prosecutors drew scrutiny earlier this year with the filing of a letter that included a secret list of unindicted co-conspirators. “Given the ‘sensitive nature’ of the information contained therein,” the letter asked that the court permanently shield the list’s disclosure from the public.
     William Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, immediately objected to the sealing request. He is being charged alongside Christie’s aide Bridget Anne Kelly with corruption.
     Two days later, more than a dozen news outlets led by the North Jersey Media Group also requested access. The publisher’s newspapers The Record and The Herald News had produced groundbreaking coverage of the scandal, and they hoped the list may have revealed other potentially high-profile political officials implicated in it.
     U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton ordered the list divulged in May, but a last-minute objection by a John Doe — one of the co-conspirators — sent the case to the Third Circuit.
     That federal appeals court put the lid back on the list Wednesday.
     “Although the appeal arises out of a matter of high public interest, the issue presented is basic and undramatic,” U.S. Circuit Judge Kent Jordan wrote for a three-person panel. “We must decide whether the letter is more akin to a bill of particulars or to a discovery disclosure in a criminal case.”
     The press has a recognized right of access to bills of particulars, which specify charges against individuals.
     First Amendment attorney Bruce Rosen said in an email that the media outlets are “disappointed” with the decision.
     “We continue to believe that the public is entitled to the list of unindicted co-conspirators under the First Amendment,” Rosen wrote. “At this point we are still reviewing the decision. Appeal would be difficult in view of the time frame and some or all of these names may be released at trial.”
     Indeed, the ruling raises the possibility of later disclosure in the final paragraph.
     “Public access to judicial documents and court proceedings is a respected tradition and important legal principle, but it has bounds,” Jordan wrote. “That is so even in a case affected by heightened public interest. The time may come, perhaps at trial, when the information in the conspirator letter ought to be made public, but that time is not here yet.”
     At a June hearing in Philadelphia, Rosen argued that the document obviously fits this bill-of-particulars description.
     “If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it’s a duck,” he told the court.
     For the unanimous Third Circuit, however, the document is a different animal altogether.
     “The government was willing to give the conspirator letter to the defendants to assist them in trial preparation, but it was not bargaining for the constraints that would be triggered by the filing of a bill of particulars,” the 32-page opinion states.
     Meanwhile, Doe’s attorney Jenny Kramer said she was “very gratified” that the circuit “prevented disclosure of highly prejudicial material to which there is no public right of access.”
     “We also appreciate the forthright and professional manner in which the United States Attorney addressed the important issues we raised in this case,” added Kramer, a lawyer from the Manhattan office of Chadbourne & Parke.

%d bloggers like this: