NEW YORK - The media should have been given access to jury selection in Martha Stewart's securities fraud trial, a federal appeals panel ruled Wednesday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum erred in refusing the media access to individual questioning of jurors, known as voir dire.
"We do not see anything in the district court's findings, other than perhaps the degree of media coverage, that differentiates this case from any other high-profile prosecution," the appeals court wrote. "The mere fact that the suit has been the subject of intense media coverage is not, however, sufficient to justify closure."
The three-judge appeals panel said that "to hold otherwise would render the First Amendment right of access meaningless." It noted that openness of the court process "acts to protect, rather than to threaten, the right to a fair trial."
Seventeen media organizations, including The Associated Press, had argued that high public interest should not close jury selection.
The appeals court said it knew its ruling was too late to make a difference in the Stewart trial, which began last month. But it said the issues likely would arise in future trials and were too important to overlook.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the Stewart case did not immediately return calls seeking comment after the ruling.
Cedarbaum, the Stewart trial judge, had ruled that the case was unusual because spectacular pretrial publicity led many members of the public to form opinions about Stewart's guilt or innocence in the stock trading case.
During oral arguments earlier this year before the appeals court, the judges were skeptical when prosecutors said the Stewart jury selection process should be closed.
The judges noted that jury selection has been closed historically only in extraordinary circumstances, which the U.S. Supreme Court has described as when "closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest."
During one exchange, a prosecutor said it was necessary to keep the media out because they have paid so much attention to what Stewart wears to court that jurors would fear the media would analyze their clothing, too.
To that, appeals Judge Loretta A. Preska responded, "So what?"