On Speech And Subpoenas, New York Giveth And Taketh (Now, The Bad News On Journalist Protection)

from the unappealing-jurisprudence dept

Having just written about a good New York ruling concerning third-party subpoenas and the ability to protect free speech, now we have to write about some less good news: the recent decision by New York’s highest court undermining the protection afforded by the state’s shield law.

Shield laws are critical to preserving a free and independent press because they enable journalists to resist testifying about the non-public aspects of their reporting, or having to turn over their notes and related work product. This ability to resist is what empowers them to promise anonymity to sources, which often can be the only way for news the public needs to know about to come to light. If journalists couldn’t resist, or had to risk going to jail in order to try, it would inhibit their reporting and leave the public less able to learn about matters of public concern. Yet unfortunately this decision by the New York Court of Appeals invites just such a result by interfering with journalists’ ability to avail themselves of the protection ostensibly afforded by the state shield law. (Note: New York confusingly labels its lowest court the Supreme Court. The highest court is instead known as the Court of Appeals. The Appellate Division is in the middle.)

As frequently happens with tough cases involving important First Amendment interests, the underlying facts of this case are awful: Conrado Juarez has been charged with the gruesome 1991 murder of his four year-old niece. The case remained unsolved until DNA evidence made him a suspect. After fourteen hours of interrogation, he purportedly confessed. He now claims that the confession was coerced, and prosecutors want to use the notes and testimony of New York Times reporter Frances Robles, who had interviewed him, to challenge his claims. The trial court originally refused her motion to quash the subpoena demanding she provide the notes and testimony, but the Appellate Division overruled that decision and quashed it. Only now the Court of Appeals has overturned the Appellate Division’s ruling, thus making the subpoena once again enforceable.

In overturning the Appellate Division’s decision the Court of Appeals found that the reporter had no right to appeal the original denial of her motion to quash the subpoena by the trial court. If she had no right to appeal the trial court’s decision, then the Appellate Division had no ability to reverse it. [p. 2] But even if this Court of Appeals finding that she had no right of appeal were truly consistent with chapter and verse of New York appellate procedure (the dissent believes it isn’t [Rivera dissent p. 8-9]), it’s still a remarkably formalistic conclusion that gives short shrift to the significant substantive rights at stake.

Formalism isn’t of course inherently bad; careful adherence to procedural rules can sometimes help protect substantive rights better than ad hoc short cuts can. These rules exist in order to further the administration of justice, and the Court of Appeals itself fairly makes this point: by limiting the ability to appeal in criminal matters, it keeps the administration of justice from being bogged down unfairly through appellate gamesmanship. [p. 2]

But justice isn’t furthered by being a slave to interpretations of procedural rules so at odds with why we have the rules in the first place. Or, as in this case, so indifferent to the rights of those these rules were never intended to govern ? namely, the third parties affected here and whose interests the Court of Appeals seems so hostile to [p. 4-5]. Or so arbitrary in their application and effect.

That arbitrariness is well on display here. First, the no-appeal rule the Court cites only applies to criminal cases, not civil ones, [p. 2], which suggests that if this case had not involved a prosecution, the reporter apparently could still have appealed a lower court’s refusal to quash a subpoena without problem. Next, the rule limiting appeals does not apply to subpoenas issued as part of investigations of criminal matters. [p. 3] So, if they hadn’t already begun to prosecute the defendant, the reporter also likely could have appealed a refusal to quash a subpoena.

In addition, if this case had originally broken the other way, and the trial court had originally quashed the subpoena, then per this rule, if applied consistently, it would have been the government who could not have been able to appeal that ruling. Obviously this particular result would be protective of journalists, but for the no-appeal rule to be applied this way it still makes journalists’ protection entirely contingent on the judgment of trial courts. And that’s a problem, because trial courts are not infallible. If they were, then there would be no need to have any appeals courts at all. We have these courts because sometimes lower courts get things wrong, as this one did here, and there needs to be some way to set things right when they do. But what the Court of Appeals is saying in this case is that when it comes to subpoenaing journalists (something that the NY legislature passed the shield law in order to prevent), if this subpoenaing happens as part of a criminal trial, then journalists will be entirely dependent on that trial court getting the decision whether to quash it perfectly correct in the first instance, because its decision on the matter will not be one that can ever be reviewed.

For shield law protection to be meaningful it needs to have adequate rights of appeal baked into it, in all situations where journalists may need to assert it. True, in the context of criminal trials journalists might be able to recover the right to appeal as part of their challenge of a contempt order seeking to punish their refusal to comply with a subpoena. But if journalists are forced to risk jail to assert their shield law protection effectively, then the protection the shield law affords is hardly effective.

The Court of Appeals seems to think that a legislative fix is the way to go to make it explicit that there is always a right of appeal. [p. 5] And there may also be the possibility of challenging a subpoena as part of an “Article 78” civil proceeding, although, as the dissent notes, forcing journalists to go this route does nothing to advance the speedy-trial interests the majority’s “no appeal” rule is supposed to advance (nor is it clear that an Article 78 proceeding would necessarily be an effective option).

In any case, the alternatives available to a nonparty seeking some type of appellate review of the denial of a motion to quash will likely result in even greater delay of the criminal proceeding than would a direct appeal of a quashal motion. The two avenues left open to a nonparty to contest a denial would be a CPLR Article 78 action in the nature of prohibition or for the nonparty to simply fail to comply with the subpoena and seek appellate review of the subsequent order of contempt. In either case, if the prosecutor or defendant needed the nonparty?s evidence, they would wait until the resolution of the collateral proceedings. [Rivera dissent p. 11]

But the problem is that journalists should not be in the situation where their right and ability to resist subpoenas the shield law is supposed to protect them from are so uncertain. In order to be consistent with the First Amendment and similar principles enshrined in the New York Constitution, principles that the shield law seeks to vindicate, the right to appeal any trial court denial should be implicit, since the effect of barring these appeals so significantly impinges on the free press the public needs.

Sadly, however, this sort of decision ? procedural formalism over the effective preservation of substantive speech rights ? may be par for the course for the New York Court of Appeals these days. This case is not the first one where the Court of Appeals has reached a conclusion that puts substantive speech rights at risk because of the way it has limited the appellate rights of third parties. In fact, it justified this shield law decision by citing another case it decided last year where Facebook, as a third party, had tried to quash 381 Stored Communications Act “warrants” seeking information about its speakers. In that case, Facebook had been similarly denied a right to appeal the denial of its motion to quash, and for generally similar reasons as those cited in this case now.

We’ve written before about troubling effects that arise when shield law jurisprudence collides with attempts by platforms to protect the anonymity of their users. The questions of whether journalists can resist subpoenas and whether platforms also can are separate and distinct, and, as such, are often best resolved according to separate and distinct reasoning. After all, the right to a free press and the right to speak anonymously often affect liberty interests in different ways. Plus, as we saw in the Glassdoor case, when both the district court and the Ninth Circuit unhelpfully conflated the two sets of questions and used the reasoning for journalist subpoenas to drive its analysis of platform subpoenas, it used the weak reasoning in the former context to undermine the constitutional protection of anonymous speech in the latter. And in this case now we see further problems with conflating these issues, only this time in reverse, with the earlier Facebook case about platform subpoenas and anonymous speech now negatively shaping this case about journalist subpoenas and the right to a free press.

On the other hand, both anonymous speech and free press cases affect the interests of third parties and both vindicate important First Amendment rights upon which public discourse depends. Both therefore deserve to have had these critical rights treated with more care than the New York high court lately has afforded them.

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