Judge Criss, meet the First Amendment

The SE Texas Record Nov. 10, 2007, 5:38am

The people have a right to know what happens in their courts.

That's, in essence, what the Texas First Court of Appeals said in slapping down Galveston District Judge Susan Criss, who in September tried to silence-until-further-notice jurors who served in her courtroom.

They made up a rare panel that heard arguments in the only civil trial thus far over the 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery. Every other BP case has settled out-of-court, ensuring the lawyers could keep the groovy details like a secret.

This one eventually settled, too, though it happened mid-trial. And when it did, we still had many questions for our fellow citizens who had witnessed it live.

What did they think of the plaintiff claims? Was BP's defense credible? Was Judge Criss fair? And what about the tactics of plaintiff's lawyer Brent Coon, who famously tried to subconsciously associate BP with Enron and tobacco companies during jury selection? Did they notice? What did they think?

In ordering the dismissed jurors not to talk with friends, family or media about what they had experienced, Criss wasn't about to give our reporters or anyone else the opportunity to ask.

In short, she wasn't about to give the public a chance to judge our justice system's performance for itself. That's until further notice, or when Judge Criss personally decided the world was safe to hear the jurors' unvarnished reflections.

Thankfully, lawyers from the Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle took Criss to task for her abuse of power and a higher court agreed, ordering her gag order lifted.

"No findings or evidence show that the additional, incremental publicity from juror interviews would cause imminent and irreparable harm to the judicial process," the court said.

In other words, Criss had no basis for her argument that jurors must be silenced to protect the independent sanctity of the Southeast Texas jury pool for future plaintiffs suing BP.

To the contrary, our justice system works best when it's out in the open for all to see. Only lawyers-- and power-hungry judges-- benefit when it's cloaked in darkness.

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