Jackson New Media, Inc., publisher of the political interest website YallPolitics.com, has filed to intervene in the 2007 federal court case of State Farm Insurance vs. Attorney General Jim Hood (2:07CV188BP, Southern District of Mississippi). Also, WLBT of Jackson, WLOX of Biloxi and WDAM of Hattiesburg have all filed seperate joinder motions to intervene.
These media outlet have requested that US District Court Judge David Bramlette make public a settlement agreement entered into between State Farm Insurance and the Mississippi Attorney General’s office that was executed hours after General Hood was questioned under oath. Jackson New Media points to its free press and free access rights under the First Amendment, as well as the Mississippi Constitution and state law as the basis for the opening of the settlement document between State Farm and Hood.
Since executing the settlement agreement, both sides have had material disagreement about its meaning or even that a settlement agreement exists.
On February 18, 2008, Attorney General Hood wrote an op-ed column in the Clarion Ledger and stated, “allegations lodged against me by this insurer (State Farm) were shown to be false when a federal judge recently threw out a lawsuit it had filed against my office.” Jan Schaffer, Press Secretary for the Attorney General Hood, stated in an email to the press on February 19, 2008, “There is no ‘settlement’. The only reason it is referred to as such is because the details of the Attorney General’s criminal investigation needed to be protected. The case was dismissed because the allegations were false.” In an email response that was accidentally leaked to the press, State Farm Attorney Sheila Birnbaum stated “This is so over the top. Can we ask that he (General Hood) be held in contempt of court for misrepresenting a settlement agreement and order of the court?”
In Judge Bramlette’s Judgment of Dismissal on February 7, 2008, he cited the settlement agreement and affirmed the underlying agreement that State Farm sought to have enforced in the lawsuit. He stated the January 23, 2007 Letter Agreement “is a standalone agreement, unambiguous and enforceable.” He also stated “The Court further finds that, based on a confidential settlement agreement between the parties, which shall remain under seal, this case shall be dismissed with prejudice. The Court retains jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement.”
Jackson New Media attorney Andy Taggart stated, “Hundreds of thousands of Mississippians were adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina. This was a watershed piece of litigation that tens of thousands of homeowners and all Mississippi taxpayers have a stake in. All we ask from the Court is to allow the press and the public their First Amendment right to access to relevant court materials and remove the lingering doubts as to what really happened in this matter.”
Jackson New Media, Inc. moves this Court for an order granting it partial relief from the February 7, 2008 Judgment of Dismissal, to the extent of unsealing and allowing free access to the settlement agreement and any related documents or materials now maintained under seal by the Court, and for related purposes, all designed to vindicate New Media’s free press rights under the United States Constitution and Mississippi Constitution of 1890, and New Media’s free access rights under the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983. If the Court finds exceptions to the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983, unsealing of redacted versions of affected documents would address that concern.
ALTERNATIVELY, Jackson New Media, Inc. moves this Court for an order requiring the original parties to appear and show cause why the settlement agreement filed under seal in this matter should not be unsealed and made available for public review.