Media Lawyers Challenge Judge's Contempt Ruling, Decorum Order

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A television reporter found in contempt for disregarding a court order in the criminal trial of a polygamous-sect leader wants the ruling thrown out, contending the decision violates her First Amendment rights.

Katie Baker's attorneys said the U.S. Constitution protects the news media from government censorship, and that 5th District Judge James L. Shumate's findings are threatening to press freedoms.

"Fundamental to the protections afforded the press under the First Amendment is the principle that the press should be independent of government control," attorney David Reymann wrote in court papers filed Friday.

Shumate's conclusion is also "wholly disproportionate to the conduct at issue," Reymann wrote. "Contempt is not the catch-all solution for every violation of a court order."

Utah State Courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said Shumate could address the filing as early as Tuesday, when news media outlets seeking access to sealed case documents are already scheduled for a hearing.

Shumate found the Salt Lake City-based KUTV reporter in contempt after the broadcast of her interview with a prospective juror in the trial of Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The story aired Sept. 10, the second day of jury selection.

Shumate said the report violated a decorum order that banned contact between reporters and the jury pool before the September trial. Shumate said Baker could purge the order if she produces a "public need" story within 90 days of his Oct. 17 ruling and provides a copy to the court.

Media attorneys also contend that the decorum order itself violates constitutional protections because it "reaches out the courthouse doors" and seeks to restrain the media's newsgathering role.

"The main purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent all such prior restraints and publications as had been practiced by other governments," Reymann wrote in court papers.

Consistent with other Utah cases, news organizations should have been allowed to fight the decorum order in May when the first of its three amended forms that restricted various aspects of media coverage was issued, Reymann told The Associated Press on Monday.

"That's what the Utah Supreme Court has required. It's never happened in this case," Reymann said.

Protecting the interests of jurors or potential jurors doesn't have to occur at the expense of public access to the process, Reymann said.

Shumate has never addressed an earlier objection to the portion of the order that barred the media from reporting statements or conversations between attorneys or between defense lawyers and Jeffs while in court, Reymann said.

Baker has said she didn't know about the no-contact provision and made a mistake by doing the story.

Shumate seemed to accept that explanation in court last month, but in a written decision later said the decorum order would be meaningless if she were not held accountable.

Baker could face a 30-day jail sentence and/or a $1,000 fine if she fails to comply.

Reymann has asked Shumate to stay his ruling so Baker can appeal to a higher court.

National news organizations including the Society of Professional Journalists have also sent letters asking Shumate to rescind his ruling.

A jury found Jeffs, 51, guilty of two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 arranged marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin.

Shumate is set to sentence Jeffs Nov. 20. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.


(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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