Judge rules against gag order in Idaho prison suit

From the Associated Press

By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday agreed with The Associated Press and rejected Correction Corporation of America’s request for a sweeping gag order in a lawsuit between Idaho inmates and the private prison company.

In the lawsuit, the Idaho Correctional Center inmates ask for class-action status and say the Boise-area prison is so violent that it’s called “Gladiator School.” They say the guards use brutal inmate-on-inmate violence as a management tool and then deny injured prisoners adequate medical care. The Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA says prisoner safety is its top priority and that it works closely with state leaders to meet the standards set by the Idaho Department of Correction.

The case has garnered widespread media attention, and in January CCA attorneys asked the judge for a gag order barring attorneys, witnesses and others involved in the case from speaking to the news media. The company said one of the ACLU attorneys representing the inmates, Stephen Pevar, made inflammatory and prejudicial statements in press releases and interviews, and CCA maintained that continued news coverage of such statements would make it impossible to find an impartial jury.

Pevar and the ACLU contended that his statements were neither inflammatory nor prejudicial, and they filed a motion opposing the gag order. The Associated Press, which has extensively covered the Idaho Correctional Center and the lawsuit, also asked the court for permission to intervene in the case for the sole reason of opposing the proposed gag order.

In a written ruling handed down Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge agreed to let the AP intervene and then rejected the gag order.

Such a sweeping gag order would be a prior restraint on free speech, Lodge wrote, and infringe on the free speech rights of those involved with the case, the attorneys, the media and the public.

Lodge went on to say that CCA’s rights to an impartial jury will be adequately protected through voir dire, the process in which potential jurors are questioned about their knowledge of the case. He said an impartial jury could be found without the court resorting to gag orders.

Lodge also said that while he was concerned about the tone of some of Pevar’s statements, they were made on isolated occasions months apart. He noted that in response to a separate motion, he was splitting the lawsuit into two cases, one of which could go before a jury and another that will be decided by a judge. Pevar will only be the attorney of record for the case that goes before a judge, Lodge said, further reducing any risk that a jury would be influenced by any statements made to the press.

Lodge ended his ruling on the matter with an admonishment for the attorneys: “From this point forward, the Court trusts that all counsel will exercise discretion and refrain from making statements that might violate their ethical duties or jeopardize the fair administration of justice in this or any other case,” he said.

CCA spokesman Steven Owen said that because the ruling was just released, he wasn’t in a position to speculate on what impact it might have on the case.

“We respect the judicial process and it’s through that process that we continue to address the merits of the case,” Owen said.

Lewiston, Idaho-based attorney Charles Brown, who represented the AP, said the ruling was an example for the entire court system.

“A ruling such as this from Judge Lodge is very significant because it sends out the message that the workings of our court system are — and should be — transparent. That’s not only important for the press, but important for the public as a whole,” Brown said.

Officials with the ACLU did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press.

The judge also dealt with several other pending motions in the case, including the one to split the lawsuit. He agreed to make the claims brought by inmate Marlin Riggs separate. Riggs is asking for $155 million in damages — CCA’s entire net profit for 2009 — and if the case goes to trial, a jury will decide if he is entitled to damages. The rest of the inmates will continue to seek class-action status and their claims will be decided by the judge.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

From the Associated Press

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