Reporter Facing Jail Seeks Supreme Court Hearing

By Gersh, Debra | Editor & Publisher, September 12, 1992 | Go to article overview

Reporter Facing Jail Seeks Supreme Court Hearing


Gersh, Debra, Editor & Publisher


A Florida reporter facing a jail term for refusing to reveal a source, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case, and his attorney is optimistic that the Court will get involved.

Tim Roche, a courthouse reporter for the Stuart (Fla.) News, was sentenced to 30 days in the county jail in October 1990 after he had refused to reveal who had provided him with the text of an allegedly sealed court order.

That order terminated the parental rights of a woman who, along with her husband, had earlier been tried for the murder of another of her children. The murder trial received tremendous publicity in the state, and Roche did a number of stories about both trials, as well as interviewing the mother just before the termination hearing began.

Under Florida law, the contents of the order terminating the woman's parental rights to her daughter are to be sealed by the judge. The law also states that it is illegal to publish the contents of the order, a statute similar to the state's prohibition on publishing the names of rape victims.

Although the trial court found Roche in contempt for refusing to reveal his source, the appeals and state supreme courts focused on whether his publication of the order violated that law.

Roche's article quoted 54 words from the order and noted that, although the order had been sealed, the newspaper had obtained a copy.

When he refused to reveal who had given him a copy of the termination order, Roche was found guilty of indirect criminal contempt of court. His sentence has been stayed through the appeals process, and on July 22, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy granted a stay pending completion of the certiorari process.

Among the arguments in his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Roche notes that, not only was the order widely disseminated among workers at the court and other state agencies but the judge also had not actually ordered the order sealed. The results of the hearing were reported by media throughout Florida the next day.

"Once supposedly confidential information has been communicated to persons lacking authority to know it, the raison d'etre for confidentiality and the state interest it serves cease to exist," Roche's petition stated, in part.

Further, it noted that Roche "did not break the law by reporting portions of the termination order . . . . Moreover, petitioner broke no law by receiving information about the termination order."

The petition also points out that "there is no proof anywhere in the record that any purported harm -- real or imagined -- actually occurred as a result of petitioner's quotation of 54 words from the termination order. No lives were lost, no one's personal safety was threatened, no privacy interest was imperiled."

Roche's petition also explained that on June 1, 1990, two days after the Stuart News story, "Florida's open records law was amended to provide, in cases of child abuse, a |presumption that the best interests of a child and child's siblings . . . [would] be served by full public disclosure of the circumstances of the death of the child and any other investigation concerning the child and child's siblings.'

"Thus, at the same time that the state was prosecuting petitioner for supposedly violating the privacy rights of a child caught up in an abuse case, the Florida Legislature was enacting legislation designed to focus additional public scrutiny on child abuse cases."

Washington, D.C., attorney Bruce W. Sanford of Baker & Hostetler is representing Roche before the Supreme Court. Sanford said he thinks the High Court will hear the case because, in granting the stay, Justice Kennedy had to determine whether at least four justices would vote to grant certiorari and if there were a "fair prospect" that the Court would find the lower court decisions erroneous.

Sanford explained that, while the trial court found Roche in contempt for not revealing his source -- a question of reporter's privilege -- the later court decisions were focused on whether he had violated the statute prohibiting such publication. …

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