Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A key ruling from the bench in the Sunshine trial

The Jury in the case of The Knoxville News-Sentinel v. The Knox County Commission will begin deliberations this morning after Chancellor Daryl Fansler made a critical decision about the nature of jury deliberations and how violations of the Open Meetings Act will be determined. His ruling is likely to be favorable to the defense:

Fansler turned aside Chief Deputy Law Director Mary Ann Stackhouse’s bid to poll jurors on whether each of the 19 commissioners violated the law. But he approved her request that jurors be asked whether the law was violated in each of the appointments.

“I’m going to do it office by office,” Fansler said of the interrogatories.

The Chancellor has ruled that the jury must make a decision on whether the Sunshine Law was violated in the case of each of the individual eight Commission appointments on January 31. It is one thing to make a very general determination (i.e. "The Knox County Commission violated the Open Meetings Act"), but it is quite another to determine that the Act was violated in each individual appointment. The Chancellor's ruling will effectively mean that the jury must make a determination about the validity of each appointment.

This also means that unless the jury finds that the Sunshine Law was violated in every case, the Chancellor is unlikely to throw out the entire appointment process. Chancellor Fansler's declaration about this key jury instruction may have already determined at least part of the outcome of this case. That the jury must make a verdict in each appointment may have already denied News-Sentinel editor Jack McElroy the victory he is seeking, since at least a portion of the outcome of January 31 is now likely to stand as it was at the end of that day.

Fansler's decision about the nature of jury deliberations is also likely to prolong the amount of time that it takes for the jury to finalize all of its verdicts. We are not now likely to see a jury in deliberation for only a few hours, but for several days at the very least.

Jack McElroy can't be terribly pleased this morning.



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