Now that Trump has been indicted in Manhattan (New York County) for alleged crimes relating to the falsification of business records, some experts have hypothesized that the judge overseeing the case will order a pre-trial gag order over the parties – including the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, and the famous defendant himself, ex-President Trump. This post discusses the legal issues surrounding a gag order and the practical implications of it in this case.
A gag order basically instructs a party to a litigation to refrain from speaking publicly about the case. A New York judge overseeing a criminal case has the power to issue a gag order over one or more of the parties to the case. Gag orders are relatively rare, however. They certainly are not done as a matter of routine. The Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, after all, and courts are generally loath to abridge those rights. However, gag orders may be necessary to protect other valuable rights under the Constitution, such as the right to a fair trial (contained in the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights), as well as the all-important “true administration of justice”.
Sometimes defense attorneys ask courts to order prosecutors not to talk about their clients’ cases publicly for fear that they would prejudice any potential jurors. For example, the attorneys for Ghislaine Maxwell – convicted in Manhattan federal court of assisting notorious sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein – contended that the federal prosecutors had tainted potential jurors by hosting press conferences in which they laid out the facts of their case. Ultimately that application for a gag order was denied, but the federal judge did admonish the attorneys to adhere to the rules of professional conduct for lawyers, which generally prohibits attempts to unfairly influence juries (or potential juries) outside of the courtroom. After all, the paramount rule of trials was explained by Justice Holmes in 1907: “The theory of our system is that the conclusions to be reached in a case will be induced only by evidence and argument in open court, and not by any outside influence, whether private talk or public print.” Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454, 462 (1907).