Judge Rejects Attorney’s Request to Question Journalists

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An attorney’s efforts to question a reporter and an editor with a new weekly legal newspaper in Beaumont after he accused them of jury tampering were stopped by a judge this week.

Brent Coon, a high-profile attorney whose clients have included victims of BP PLC’s deadly 2005 Texas City refinery blast, wanted to question Marilyn Tennissen, editor of the Southeast Texas Record, and reporter David Yates.

Coon accused them of distributing copies of the publication’s inaugural issue in Beaumont’s courthouse to potential jurors in an asbestos-related death case he was set to try in April. The case, brought by the family of a petrochemical worker who died of cancer, was later settled.

Coon described the newspaper as a “propaganda sheet” and a “mouthpiece” for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that only offers biased stories and editorials maligning personal injury lawsuits filed against companies and said it didn’t merit constitutional protections.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is an indirect owner of the newspaper, has been a proponent of tort reform laws to protect business owners from lawsuit abuse. Beaumont has long been considered a hot spot for class-action and personal injury lawsuits.

Attorneys for the newspaper said its reporters are legitimate journalists protected by the First Amendment from any questioning.

State District Judge Donald Floyd in Beaumont on Monday denied Coon’s request to question the journalists after having earlier approved it. Floyd’s ruling came following a court hearing last week in Beaumont, located about 90 miles northeast of Houston.

Greg Coleman, an attorney for the newspaper, praised Floyd’s ruling.

“The law here is so clear. You really have to show a pretty serious case of real live jury tampering in order to get past the First Amendment issues,” he said.

Coleman said the newspaper on the day of jury selection had no stories that referred to Coon’s case and Coon had no proof any potential jurors got copies of it.

“This was driven by personal animosity toward the chamber and toward the paper,” he said.

Coon, whose Beaumont-based law firm has set up a Web site critical of the chamber’s tort reform efforts, said while he respected Floyd’s ruling, he was disappointed by it.

Coon said he probably wouldn’t appeal the ruling.

“But I’m not letting go of what the paper does and what the chamber does to propogandize tort reform for its own benefit,” he said. “We’re not taking any of what the chamber does lying down. We just want them exposed for what they are.”

Besides the Southeast Texas Record, the chamber partly owns two other newspapers which report only on legal issues, one in Illinois and one in West Virginia.

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