PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A list of unindicted co-conspirators in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case should not be released before trial, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The decision from a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia overturns a lower court decision to release the list to a group of media organizations including The Associated Press.
A federal judge in Newark ordered the list released in May only to have a person identified as John Doe file to block publication of the list. He claimed it would brand him a criminal even though he wasn't charged in the indictment last year that alleged two former allies of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie orchestrated traffic jams near the bridge in September 2013 as political payback. Jury selection in their trial is set to begin Thursday.
The judges concluded that the letter was part of the general discovery process, meaning it was not protected by the First Amendment or the common law right of public access.
The appeals court judges wrote in their decision that public access to judicial documents is a respected tradition but has limits.
"That is so even in a case affected by heightened public interest. The time may come, perhaps at trial, when the information in the Conspirator Letter ought to be made public, but that time is not here yet," the judges wrote.
An unindicted co-conspirator is someone who was involved in a conspiracy in some way but hasn't been charged, usually because he or she is cooperating with a government investigation or because prosecutors feel they don't have enough evidence to gain a conviction.
Bruce Rosen, an attorney representing the media companies, said they are disappointed by the decision.
"We continue to believe that the public is entitled to the list of unindicted coconspirators under the First Amendment," Rosen said.
Jenny Kramer, an attorney for John Doe, said they are "very gratified that the court adopted our arguments and prevented disclosure of highly prejudicial material to which there is no public right of access."
Federal prosecutors argued against releasing the list, and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman made a rare appearance to argue in court in front of the appeals panel in June.
Media organizations filed a motion with the court in Newark in January seeking access to the co-conspirator list, claiming it was part of the public record in the criminal case.
Christie, who hasn't been charged and has disavowed any knowledge of the alleged scheme, has said it is highly doubtful he is on the list. A taxpayer-financed investigation by a law firm hired by Christie cleared him of wrongdoing, a conclusion roundly criticized by Democrats in New Jersey as a whitewash.