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New York Court of Appeals Reverses for Reporter in Confidentiality Issue

New York Court of Appeals Reverses for Reporter in Confidentiality Issue

The New York Court of Appeals reversed, on December 10, 2013, the New York Supreme Court's issuance of a subpoena compelling investigative reporter Jana Winter to appear before the District Court of Arapahoe County, Colorado, for the purpose of divulging her source behind an article she published which, contrary to a gag order imposed over proceedings, revealed information in the matter of James Holmes' mass shooting at a screening of 'Batman' in Aurora, Colorado. Police, on execution of a warrant after the incident took possession of a notebook Holmes had mailed to a psychiatrist. Two days later appellant Jana Winter, a Fox news reporter, published the article, “Exclusive: Movie Massacre Suspect Sent Chilling Notebook to Psychiatrist Before Attack,” and attributed her source to law enforcement personnel. At a subsequent Court inquiry the fourteen police officers who had come into contact with the notebook all testified that they had not leaked the information. Holmes initiated action under Colorado's version of the Uniform Act to Secure the Attendance of Witnesses from Without the State in in Criminal Proceedings (UASAW) with the purpose of compelling Winter's testimony or disclosure.

After the Colorado court found Winter “material and necessary,” a bilateral hearing was held in New York. At the New York UASAW proceeding, Winter cited an undue hardship exception to the UASAW, stating she would likely lose her livelihood by divulging her source, and also maintained that the information under contention held absolute privilege by New York's Shield Law. The New York Supreme Court granted Holmes' UASAW application and issued the subpoena, holding that Winter was a material and necessary witness, ignoring the privilege issue. The case was affirmed before an Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court that was divided on the strong public policy issue, with two judges dissenting. Based on the dissent, Winter had the right to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals vigorously stressed the uncompromising character of the strong public policy of New York's liberal journalistic atmosphere and pointed out that the Shield Law, to which Winter was answerable, “...prohibits a New York Court from forcing a reporter to reveal a confidential source, both by preventing such a directive from being enforced through the court's contempt power and by rendering any evidence that is covered by the provision inadmissible.”

Subsequently, the New York Court of Appeals reversed the order of the Appellate Division and dismissed Holmes’ petition. See: Matter of Holmes v. Winter, 22 N.Y.3d 300 (N.Y. 2013).

Related legal case

Matter of Holmes v. Winter