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Courts may enact narrowly tailored restrictions on media interviews of discharged jurors if a compelling state interest is at stake, a divided New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The justices voted 5-2 to uphold a trial judge’s order prohibiting post-trial interviews of jurors in the capital murder case of Rabbi Fred Neulander, which ended in a mistrial. “Although we acknowledge that in ordinary circumstances the confidentiality of jury deliberations does not override the media’s First Amendment interest in conducting post-verdict interviews of a consenting juror about that juror’s reaction to the case, the media interest is not absolute,” Justice Gary Stein wrote for the majority in State v. Neulander, A-67-01. “In special circumstances it may be required to yield to a compelling state interest, provided that any restrictions imposed are narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” Justice Virginia Long, joined by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz in dissent, said Baxter’s ruling should not be upheld because the restrictions constituted prior restraint and were unnecessary. “The passage of time, the already-ordered change of venue and a searching voir dire will ensure an adequate jury pool and the empaneling of impartial jurors capable of the free exchange of ideas. That is what the Sixth Amendment requires,” Long wrote. Camden County Superior Court Judge Linda Baxter declared a mistrial last November after the jury deadlocked on charges that Neulander arranged the killing of his wife. Five reporters were found in contempt for violating Baxter’s ban on juror interviews. Four of the reporters are from The Philadelphia Inquirer, which appealed the ban to the New Jersey Supreme Court, while the fifth works for Philadelphia Magazine. Baxter’s order also barred the media from publishing the names of jurors, but The Inquirer did so anyway. The Appellate Division upheld the order but the justices Thursday overturned the provision on publishing the names, calling it a prior restraint. Sustaining the juror-interview ban, Stein expressed concern that interviews “might reveal some insight into the jury’s deliberative process that would afford the prosecution a significant advantage at the retrial and thereby provide defendant with a colorable Sixth Amendment issue for appeal in the event of a conviction.” But Stein called “simply too speculative” the trial judge’s other basis for the order: that interviews of the first jury would inhibit free exchange of ideas by the jury that will hear the retrial. Stein cited an Appellate Division ruling, State v. Baker, 310 N.J. Super. 128 (1998), for the principle that jury proceedings are conducted in secret to preserve the integrity of the jury process. There, the appeals court upheld a trial judge who, after a newspaper gained access to and reported on notes taken by jurors during deliberations in the guilt phase of a capital murder case, declined to hold a death-penalty phase. The Inquirer will make a motion for reconsideration of the ruling, according to its lawyer, Warren Faulk, a partner with Westmont, N.J.’s Brown & Connery. The newspaper is also appealing contempt convictions against the four reporters whose bylines were on an article that named the jury forewoman and suggested she was not a New Jersey resident. The four were fined $1,000 each and three were sentenced to community service terms of one to two weeks. Dennis Wixted, a partner with Sufrin & Wixted in Camden, N.J., who represented Neulander at trial and in the media appeals, says the decision maintains “a trial court’s ability to protect jurors from improper outside influences before or after a trial.” In a capital case, “if there is a balance to be struck, it should be struck in favor of the defendant where there is a narrowly tailored order, as in this case.” he adds. Baxter will conduct a new trial in the case in September in Monmouth County, N.J. Neulander, formerly a rabbi at a large Cherry Hill, N.J., synagogue, is being held in the Burlington County Jail to be close to his new defense attorney, Michael Riley, a solo practitioner in Mount Holly, N.J. The Neulander ruling comes amid a rising tendency by courts nationwide to enact restrictions on media contact with discharged jurors, says David Schulz, head of the media practice group at New York’s Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, whose clients include Newsday and The Associated Press. Yet after reading the opinion, Schulz says he is relieved that the court acknowledged First Amendment issues in the case. “This ruling is reassuring in clarifying that the order that was challenged by the press is indeed subject to strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, and it has been affirmed by the unusual circumstances of this case,” Schulz says. “It is not as broad as it might be and it is not a license for judges in New Jersey to restrict access to jurors after they have been discharged.”

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