- U.S. appeals court hears ‘John Doe’ lawyer’s arguments
- Media say public should learn names of those in bridge plot
A lawyer for a mystery man who prosecutors said joined a plot to snarl traffic at the George Washington Bridge urged federal appeals judges to keep his identity secret, despite news organizations’ push for his name.
Releasing the list of uncharged co-conspirators would expose “John Doe,” as his attorneys call him, to having his reputation and career needlessly ruined, his lawyer, Jenny Kramer, argued Monday at the U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia. John Doe filed an emergency appeal after a federal judge in Newark, New Jersey, ordered the release of the list last month.
Identifying John Doe as a co-conspirator brands him as a criminal without the right to privacy he deserves, Kramer said.
“While the public may be very interested in knowing the narrative of the names, they are not entitled to them at this time,” Kramer said. “It’s not about what they would like to know. It’s about what they are legally entitled to have.”
Three former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were charged with creating traffic jams near the bridge in 2013 to punish a mayor who didn’t back his re-election. In January, prosecutors gave defense lawyers a list of the co-conspirators who joined the plot but weren’t charged with a crime.
About a dozen media organizations, including Bloomberg News, pushed for the release of the names, saying the right of public access trumped the privacy concerns of those on the list. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton agreed, initially setting a May 13 deadline for prosecutors to disclose the list. She extended it to May 17, but the appeals court blocked the release that day.
The identities of the co-conspirators have been a political mystery since May 2015, when prosecutors announced the indictment of the two former Christie allies, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni. A third defendant, former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein, pleaded guilty and is helping prosecutors.
Lawyers for the media argued that prosecutors gave the list to Kelly and Baroni through a document known as a bill of particulars, which detailed the case against them more fully and also triggered a First Amendment right of access. Kramer and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman countered that the list wasn’t a bill of particulars so the public has no right of access to the names before trial, scheduled for September.
In a sign of just how significant the case is for prosecutors, Fishman argued the appeal for the government. He said the list was part of the pre-trial exchange of evidence known as discovery. Under questioning, he conceded that prosecutors should have stated more clearly to defense lawyers and the defense that it wasn’t a bill of particulars.
“We could have and should have been clearer,” Fishman said.
Media attorney Bruce Rosen said Fishman’s office provided the names to the lawyers and Judge Wigenton in response to a request by Baroni for a bill of particulars. Rosen said that Wigenton called it a bill of particulars in her ruling, and just because Fishman protests that it’s not, it served the same function.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck,” Rosen said.
He said Fishman’s office has “played a little fast and loose” in pivoting on how it now describes the letter. He said the list is an “extremely important” issue that “goes to how deeply the conspiracy permeated New Jersey’s government.”
Justice Thomas Ambro, appointed by Bill Clinton, asked what the harm would be if the list weren’t released now.
“The harm is to the First Amendment,” Rosen replied. “We have a First Amendment right.”
“But isn’t that First Amendment right balanced against privacy rights?” Ambro asked.
“This is something that the people of New Jersey, New York and God knows where else are talking about,” Rosen said. “This goes to core issues of how the government is functioning.”
The other members of the panel were Kent Jordan, appointed by George W. Bush, and Anthony Scirica, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan.
The scandal hurt Christie’s image through his failed bid for the Republican nomination for the White House. He dropped out in February and backed Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Trump said last month that if he wins, Christie will lead his post-election transition team.
The cases are North Jersey Media Group v. U.S., 16-cv-00267, and U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).