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Philly judge stops J&J attempt to bar Inquirer reporter from courtroom

A Philly judge thwarted the attempt by attorneys for Johnson & Johnson to bar an Inquirer reporter from a Common Pleas courtroom during jury selection for a trial on Risperdal.

A Philadelphia judge thwarted an attempt by Johnson & Johnson attorneys to prevent an Inquirer reporter from entering a courtroom during jury selection Thursday for a Risperdal trial scheduled to start Monday.

Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas is the venue for dozens of lawsuits involving Risperdal, the antipsychotic drug made by J&J's Janssen Pharmaceuticals subsidiary. The trial in question is over a lawsuit filed by the family of a 17-year-old boy, who was prescribed Risperdal when he was only five years old. He began growing breasts when he was 12.

J&J, which made $4.7 billion from antipsychotic drugs in 2007 alone, has hundreds of individual lawsuits pending over Risperdal, with allegations of harm to patients. There are also several state cases and a federal investigation over allegations of inappropriate marketing through taxpayer-funded Medicaid plans.

On Thursday morning, jury selection began under the supervision of Common Pleas Judge Mark Bernstein. (Other Common Pleas judges have handled other pieces of these cases. Indeed, later on Thursday, Judge Arnold New ruled that J&J CEO Alex Gorsky does not have to testify in the case. The Inquirer story on that is here.)

Anyway, with jury selection under way, I walked through the open door into the courtroom and sat in a chair against the back wall.

I was at least one row, perhaps two, beyond the group of about 40 prospective jurors, who were listening to questions from one of the pharmaceutical company's attorneys.

I served on a jury and, knowing the rules, I had no plans to speak to them. But there are provisions for separating jurors from others in the courtroom.

Seated at a table, J&J's lead attorney Kenneth Murphy of Drinker, Biddle motioned to a court officer and then toward me.

Murphy knows I am a reporter.

The court officer, whom I had never met, walked over and motioned for me to step into the hall way.

In a very polite and professional manner, the court officer asked who I was. I told him my name and that I am a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He already knew and understood, but I reminded him anyway, that reporters are allowed in courtrooms during the main part of jury selection. He asked that I wait in the hall while he spoke to the judge. The door to the courtroom was still open, but I remained in the hall as requested.

A few moments later, the proceedings stopped.

All the attorneys exited the courtroom and moved to an office down the hall for a meeting with Bernstein.

A few minutes later, they all returned to the courtroom.

A few moments after that, the court officer waved me in and I sat in the mostly empty jury box to watch the proceedings. The others in the box were family members of the plaintiff, so they were separated from prospective jurors, as per the law.

And so the public portion of the questioning continued, with a J&J attorney asking jurors about preconceived views of prescribing medicine for children.

Later in the day, when I called to ask if his side objected to my presence, plaintiff's attorney Brian McCormick said no. I called and emailed Murphy to get his thoughts on the matter, but did not hear back from him.

For those curious, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 19, 2010, in a 7-2 opinion that denying public access to jury selection during a trial was a violation of the Sixth and First Amendments to the Constitution. The case was Presley v. Georgia and a link to the opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court website is here.