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Judge Tells Lawyer: No Sidewalk Speeches

By William Vogeler, Esq. on November 03, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Most lawyers know the ethics rule on trial publicity, but never have occasion to worry about it.

The rule prohibits a lawyer from making statements to the media that may prejudice a pending a case. There are some exceptions to the rule, but who really cares as a practical matter?

Not Paul Manafort's lawyer, apparently. At least not until a judge told him to stop talking to the press.

Courthouse Steps

Kevin Downing said the charges against his client were "ridiculous" after Manafort was arraigned on charges of money-laundering and tax evasion. Downing made the comment in a sidewalk speech outside the courthouse.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson didn't like what she heard. When Downing came back to court later, she had some comments of her own.

"This is a criminal trial and not a public-relations campaign," the judge said. She told the attorneys to "do their talking in the courtroom, and the pleadings, and not on the courthouse steps."

Jackson said she might impose a gag order, and invited the lawyers to submit any objections. In the meantime, she denied the defense attorney's request to free Manafort from house arrest pending trial.

Talking to Reporters

So long as lawyers follow the rules, there is nothing wrong with talking to the press. It is almost always better to talk to reporters than to ignore them.

If you don't talk to them, they will write about your story anyway. Often, it will include a line like this: "Joe Blow declined to comment," or "Jane Doe did not return phone calls." Only it will look worse with your name instead.

However, lawyers do not have completely free speech. Gag orders and ethics rules are, effectively, constitutional prior restraints.

But you don't have to worry about that unless you have a high-profile case on the docket.

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