City Desk

D.C. Judge Bars National Law Journal From Publishing Public Records

Apparently, while looking into a dispute about legal fees, The National Law Journal saw something it shouldn't have.

What it saw: Pomegranate juice maker POM Wonderful may not be so wonderful—a federal agency was investigating the company. The paper happened upon this fact when its reporter was innocently perusing documents regarding unpaid legal bills the company owed a D.C. firm. The investigation was revealed in the court docket. So NLJ planned on mentioning the investigation to its readers, but then things got complicated.

The documents NLJ saw were meant to be sealed, and now a judge says the paper can only reveal that an investigation was conducted; it can't say what agency did the investigating. NLJ editor David Brown says the documents were made available publicly due to a clerical error, and that barring his paper from writing about the investigation is a violation of the First Amendment.

"The court is trying to rectify a clerical error by creating a constitutional error,"  he tells City Desk.

NLJ ran the legal fees story, along with a note in which Brown sounded  off about the judge's interference:

What appears here is not the full story. Minutes before our deadline Friday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff signed a temporary restraining order against The National Law Journal enjoining it from publishing certain details that we legally obtained from court documents. Specifically, we are not allowed to name a government agency conducting a regulatory inquiry into one of the subjects of the article, POM Wonderful. We fought this order vigorously in court; we thought and continue to think that it is a violation of the First Amendment, and we are working on an appeal. Bartnoff, as she considered the order, said, "If I am throwing 80 years of First Amendment jurisprudence on its head, so be it." She said the court's interest in maintaining the "integrity" of its docket trumped the First Amendment concern. We strongly believe Bartnoff's action harms the integrity of the court by placing process concerns over fundamental constitutional rights. Sadly, however, because of Bartnoff's order, we were forced to scrub this article of any reference to the agency. We apologize to our readers for being unable to provide the fullest report possible. — David L. Brown, editor in chief

Brown says the paper will appeal the judge's decision. "We intend to fight," he says.

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