The federal judge in the Martha Stewart case said today that members of the media will not be allowed to watch the questioning of prospective jurors -- a process usually held in open court.
U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum said she was concerned reporters might disclose the names of potential jurors and their answers to the questions they are asked.
"There is a substantial risk that such publication or the possibility of such publication would prevent prospective jurors from giving full and frank answers to questions posed to them," she wrote.
The judge said she would release a transcript of the interviews the following day, with names withheld. The interviews are to begin Tuesday.
Hundreds of prospective jurors have already filled out questionnaires.
Closing the process to reporters and the public is a rare step that hampers the public's ability to monitor the judicial process, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
She said the step is usually reserved for cases in which there may be a risk of physical harm to a juror. But she said closing the process for publicity reasons is becoming more common.
"If it weren't so serious, it would be humorous," Dalglish said of the order. "The idea that Martha Stewart would present the same danger to a potential juror as a mobster or a drug-trafficking case is ludicrous."
It was not immediately clear what steps lawyers for media organizations covering the Stewart case might take. Dalglish said she expected the lawyers would ask for a hearing before the judge.
Judges in some other high-profile cases have allowed a pool system in which one or more reporters would watch the proceedings, then report back to their colleagues. Cedarbaum declined to take that step.
Stewart is accused of lying to investigators about why she sold ImClone Systems stock in 2001, just a day before it plunged on a negative report about an ImClone cancer drug.
The government says Stewart was tipped that ImClone founder Sam Waksal was trying to sell his stock. Stewart says she and her broker had a standing agreement to sell the stock when the price fell to $60.
Earlier this month, the judge ordered reporters not to talk to potential jurors in the case.
But an anonymous potential juror posted a report on a Web site listing some of the questions in the questionnaire. The judge mentioned the "violation" of her order in barring reporters from the juror interviews