DC judge muzzles National Law Journal in POM juice case
Saturday, July 24, 2010
A spat over legal fees has led to an odd — and, frankly, indefensible — decision by a local judge in Washington, D.C., to issue an order barring the National Law Journal from naming a federal regulatory agency in its coverage of the lawsuit. The reason? “The court’s interest in maintaining the ‘integrity’ of its docket trumped the First Amendment concern.”
The case is a complaint by the Hogan Lovells law firm that POM, the marketers of pomegranate juice, stiffed them on $666,225 in legal bills and expenses. POM responded that the legal work was poor, and the fees exorbitant. And then late Friday it persuaded Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff to sign a temporary restraining order barring the National Law Journal from naming the regulatory agency at the heart of the case for which POM had hired Hogan Lovells.
My guess? It’s the Food and Drug Administration, which has been throwing rocks at POM’s claims of the health benefits of drinking its POM 100% Wonderful Pomegranate Juice, and led to a formal warning letter in February 2009 — around the time Hogan Lovells was hired to represent the juice makers.
Regardless, it’s hard to envision any facet of a legal-fee dispute that would warrant sealing court records — or, in this case, redacting them, including excising details from transcripts, as the judge ordered. Or holding secret hearings, which the judge also allowed, according to the National Law Journal’s article.
Part of maintaining the public’s access to courts is maintaining access to court records. Justice may be blind but it can’t be invisible. Let’s hope the judge wakes up over the weekend and sees the error of her ways — or that the National Law Journal wins a speedy appeal.
And from a pragmatic standpoint, POM needs to find some crisis management help. Hardly anyone would have noticed this lawsuit if it hadn’t persuaded the judge to try to keep parts of it quiet. Talk about your unintended consequences ….