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Judge: Investigation into deadly mine accident is private

  • Story Highlights
  • Judge says there is no constitutional basis to make investigation public
  • News media sued to open inquiry into Utah mine disaster
  • Government says media access could compromise the investigation
  • Six miners trapped in August 6 cave-in; their bodies have not been recovered
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(CNN) -- The press does not have the right to get access to the government's investigation into the deadly August accident at the Crandall Canyon mine, a federal judge in Utah ruled Tuesday.

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Rescuers drill into the mine on August 16 to try to reach the miners. Three people died in rescue attempts.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said there is no constitutional basis for him to make the investigation public.

"Plaintiffs argue that the First Amendment mandates public access to the type of MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration] proceeding at issue in this case," Benson wrote in his order. "They point, however, to nothing specific in the Constitution to support their claim."

A coalition of news organizations including CNN, The Associated Press, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Morning News filed suit last week seeking to stop the investigation into the Crandall Canyon incident until a judge could decide whether the proceedings should be open to the public.

The suit asked for Benson to grant a temporary restraining order to stop federal investigators "from conducting any more closed proceedings" and to release the transcripts from the proceedings that have already taken place.

Michael O'Brien, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the media organizations, said they are "disappointed, but not disheartened."

The news organizations are considering appealing the ruling within the court system. They are also considering a possible appeal to Congress that would require MSHA to hold public hearings "on these important matters, where the actions of MSHA as well as the mine owner are under question.

"Certainly, MSHA should not be allowed to investigate itself in secret," O'Brien said in an e-mail to CNN.

"If the courts don't intervene, hopefully Congress will find a way to allow public scrutiny of MSHA's investigations of itself and its regulated mines."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah is pleased with Benson's decision, but won't comment further "since this is ongoing litigation," said spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch.

Attorneys for MSHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNN.

On August 6, a cave-in of the Crandall Canyon mine trapped six miners. Ten days later, three other people, including an investigator for the U.S. Department of Labor's MSHA, died as they attempted to reach the trapped miners, whose bodies have not been recovered.

Benson said there is no established precedent under which he could make the investigation public. Some cases the media organizations referred to have to do with access to criminal trials, he wrote, and "the court cannot make the leap that plaintiffs suggest by concluding that because the public has a First Amendment right of access to hear witnesses in a criminal trial, they also have a right of access to private government investigatory interviews."

The media organizations claimed in their suit that the same Utah federal court, after a similar accident 20 years ago, ruled that MSHA had to make its proceedings public. Government attorneys said in their response to the suit that the decision was later vacated as moot, and even if it had not been, that case involved formal hearings open to outside groups but closed to the media.

Benson agreed with the government in his ruling, saying the facts in the previous case differ from those in the current situation. "In this case, MSHA is conducting private, government-only interviews. Unlike [the previous case], no company or union representatives, or any other outside individuals, are permitted to attend or participate in the interviews."

The ruling in the previous case allowed MSHA to exclude the media so long as interview attendants were limited to MSHA personnel, a court reporter, the person being questioned, and his or her attorney or adviser, Benson wrote. "This is almost the exact situation in this case. The only difference is that in this case a state official [who is part of the investigation team] and a notary are also present."

The media organizations claimed in the suit that media access to the investigation would ensure it is conducted properly and minimize attempts by the government to distort the truth. The government claimed that media access could compromise the investigation through the release of incomplete information or by influencing the statements of those who had not yet been interviewed.

"The court finds any of these policy arguments persuasive," Benson wrote, but said it was not his place to make such decisions. "While it may be true that requiring all government investigations to be open would result in greater accountability and more accurate information, if such a requirement is to be imposed, it must come from a statute that is debated and passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

"It is not this court's or any other court's role to make law, only to interpret it." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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