SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court overturned a judge’s order barring a newspaper reporter and other people from disclosing information the judge deemed confidential at the trial of a business lawsuit.
The Albuquerque Journal and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government brought the issue before the state Supreme Court and presented oral arguments on Wednesday.
At the start of the trial in April, Judge Alan Malott warned the audience, which included a reporter from the Albuquerque newspaper, that he would jail those who shared court discussion of financial information involving the Abruzzo family-owned Alvarado Realty.
Lawyers representing the family of Mary Pat Abruzzo had asked that some sensitive financial information be kept private.
“If I find out that any of you have leaked any of the information you see and . hear as a member of the audience, I will bring criminal contempt charges against you,” Malott said.
The Albuquerque judge maintained his order was necessary to strike a balance between protecting privacy and the public’s right to observe a trial.
An attorney representing the newspaper challenged the order and the issue was taken to the five justices of the state Supreme Court.
The attorney argued that the order was an unconstitutional prior restraint while a lawyer with the state attorney general’s office maintained there were serious privacy concerns in the Abruzzo case.
“He was just limiting a small financial aspect,” Assistant Attorney General Susan Sullivan said. “The protections of the First Amendment are not absolute.”
The arguments lasted about an hour and the justices struck down the order after brief deliberation.
After the ruling was issued, a reporter with the Albuquerque newspaper got a response from Malott who was at the hearing.
“That’s what the Supreme Court is supposed to do,” Malott said. “I really can’t say more than that.”