Surprise: AGs in 34 States Back Reporters’ Rights in Plame Case

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(AP) The attorneys general of at least 34 states will urge the Supreme Court to recognize a reporter’s right to keep sources confidential in the case involving the leak of an undercover CIA officer’s identity.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican, is helping assemble the bipartisan group for a friend-of-the-court brief to be filed Friday and said he was working to recruit more attorneys general.

“Everybody’s first reaction was, ‘Wait a minute. We’re chief law enforcement officers of our states, why are we going to support something that makes our jobs harder?”‘ Shurtleff said Thursday.

“But we’ve always recognized the importance of constitutional protections. Overall, society is better off with an open press and an informed public. In addition, it’s important everyone knows what the rules are. Reporters in fairness need to know they’re going to be protected. That argument has turned a lot of AGs around,” he said.

The ability of journalists to keep sources confidential is recognized by law or court rulings in all states but Wyoming, where the courts haven’t had an opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

Shurtleff said getting a majority of the states’ attorneys general to urge support for a reporter’s shield privilege could influence the Supreme Court when it takes up contempt orders against New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine’s Matt Cooper.

Miller and Cooper face 18 months in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury as part of an investigation into who divulged the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame.

A federal judge held the reporters in contempt last fall, and an appeals court rejected their argument that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution shielded them from revealing their sources.

Lawyers for Time magazine and The New York Times asked the Supreme Court earlier this month to throw out the contempt orders. The earliest the court could take up the case is this fall.

Plame’s name was first made public in 2003 by columnist Robert Novak, who cited unidentified senior Bush administration officials for the information. The column appeared after Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, wrote a newspaper opinion piece criticizing the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq sought uranium in Niger.

Cooper reported on Plame, while Miller gathered material for an article about the intelligence officer but never wrote a story. The attorneys general will ask the Supreme Court to adopt a balancing test weighing the public interest of journalism against the desire of law enforcement agencies to investigate the unauthorized release of sensitive information.

They want the court to settle contradictory rulings of federal district courts and follow the precedent set by some state courts that have recognized a reporter’s privilege.

Shurtleff said reporters have been willing to go to jail to protect their sources since the colonial times of John Peter Zenger, and that it was time for the Supreme Court to decide the matter.

By Thursday the brief had the support of attorneys general from these states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin.

Attorneys generals for the District of Columbia and U.S. Virgin Islands also have signed on.

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