Published January 14, 2015
The Colorado Supreme Court (search) ruled Monday the news media have no right to publish mistakenly released details from a closed-door hearing in the Kobe Bryant (search) sexual assault case, narrowly backing the trial judge in a First Amendment clash.
The court fight centers on transcripts from a two-day hearing last month that were accidentally e-mailed by a court reporter to seven news organizations, including The Associated Press.
The judge quickly issued an order threatening a contempt citation against any news organization that released details from the hearing, which focused on attempts by Bryant's attorneys to have his accuser's sex life and money she received from a state victims' compensation program introduced as evidence. Those decisions are pending.
None of the details has been published or broadcast, but attorneys for the media groups appealed the order from District Judge Terry Ruckriegle (search).
In a 4-3 ruling, the high court acknowledged the order amounts to prior restraint of a free press, which is barred by the Constitution. The court, however, said such a step was permissible given the facts and context of the Bryant case.
"(T)he state's interest in keeping the in camera proceedings confidential is sufficiently weighty to overcome the presumption in favor of dissemination at this time," the court said. "We also determine that this prior restraint is necessary to protect against an evil that is great and certain and would result from reportage."
Media attorney Chris Beall said no decision had been made on whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Michael Bender, who wrote the dissent, said it was unfair to hold the media responsible if a court failed to do its job.
"It is the responsibility of the government, not the media, to protect information that lies within its control," Bender said.
"The power the majority authorizes is the power of the government to censor the media, which is precisely the power the First Amendment forbids," Bender wrote.
Bryant, 25, is accused of raping a front desk worker at a Vail-area resort last summer. He has pleaded innocent to felony sexual assault, saying he had consensual sex with the woman, now 20.
If convicted, the Los Angeles Lakers (search) star faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000. Bryant was in Eagle on Monday for a hearing in advance of his Aug. 27 trial.
The Supreme Court ordered the judge to rule as quickly as possible whether the woman's sex life — and details from the June hearings — is relevant and will be admissible at trial. It also suggested the transcripts could be released in redacted form.
But the court said there were too many reasons to keep the transcripts from public view to toss out Ruckriegle's entire decision.
"The Supreme Court determines that the state has an interest of the highest order in this case in providing a confidential evidentiary proceeding under the rape-shield statute, because such hearings protect victims' privacy, encourage victims to report sexual assault, and further the prosecution and deterrence of sexual assault," the court said.
Prosecutor Mark Hurlburt had argued against releasing the transcripts to protect Bryant's right to a fair trial and protect the woman from "harm, harassment, intimidation or retaliation."
The woman's attorney, John Clune, has asked the judge to stop using electronic media to distribute information in the case altogether. He said the court's use of the Internet to post filings and decisions, and e-mail to distribute documents have caused "irreparable" harm to his client.
Ruckriegle began the practice last year to reduce pressure on court clerks swamped with copy requests from reporters.
Bryant's attorneys did not weigh in on the First Amendment dispute. They have claimed the accuser had multiple sexual partners in the days surrounding her encounter with the NBA star and have suggested her injuries could have been caused by someone other than Bryant. They also say she received unusually large amounts of money from the compensation program, suggesting it was an incentive to go forward with the case.
In addition to the AP, the other organizations involved in the court challenge are The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, Fox News, ESPN and the television show "Celebrity Justice."