Albany Times Union

Judge’s actions draw scrutiny

- By Sean Murphy and Jake Bleiberg

A federal judge overseeing a high-stakes case that could threaten access to medication abortion across the nation told lawyers not to publicize upcoming arguments in the lawsuit, in a move experts say is outside the norm in the U.S. judicial system.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk — who was appointed by former President Donald Trump and is known for conservati­ve views — told attorneys during a status conference by telephone on Friday that because the case has prompted death threats and protests, “less advertisem­ent of this hearing is better,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“And because of limited security resources and staffing, I will ask that the parties avoid further publicizin­g the date of the hearing,” Kacsmaryk said, according to the transcript released Tuesday. “This is not a gag order but just a request for courtesy given the death threats and harassing phone calls and voicemails that this division has received.”

Kacsmaryk did not specify who made threats.

“We want a fluid hearing with all parties being heard. I think less advertisem­ent of this hearing is better,” the judge said in asking lawyers not to Tweet about the hearing so that the court could avoid “any unnecessar­y circus-like atmosphere of what should be more of an appellates­tyle proceeding.”

The judge, based in Amarillo, Texas, said he planned to issue an order setting the hearing on Tuesday, one day before the hearing on Wednesday. Kacsmaryk ultimately issued the order Monday, after The Washington Post reported on his attempt to keep the hearing under wraps.

Protests are planned in the Texas Panhandle city Wednesday, with the Women’s March advocacy group urging people to rally outside the federal courthouse wearing judge and kangaroo costumes to decry Kacsmaryk.

Terry Maroney, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School who studies federal judges, said they often have security concerns in high-profile cases, but Kacsmaryk’s handling of such worries was unusual.

“I have not heard of anybody doing this,” Maroney said of Kacsmaryk seeking to delay public notice of the hearing. “It does strike me as unusual and not proper.”

Maroney said that while Kacsmaryk noted his request to avoid publicity was not an order, most lawyers would be inclined to obey when a judge frames a request as a matter of safety. “It functional­ly operates as a gag order,” she said.

University of Oklahoma law professor Joseph Thai called it deeply concerning for a federal judge to try to keep the public in the dark.

The closely watched lawsuit is challengin­g the U.S. Food and Drug Administra­tion’s more than 20year approval of the drug mifepristo­ne, one of two drugs used in medication abortions which account for more than half of the abortions in the U.S.

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