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Will bloggers get to cover Libby trial?

If no plea bargain happens, bloggers may not receive prized media seats in trial of White House aide Lewis Libby.

During the Microsoft antitrust trial that took place in the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., seven years ago, journalists were handed special passes that gave them guaranteed courtroom seats by letting them skip to the front of the line.

Any trial of senior White House aide Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, would take place in the same building. But it's not clear whether the legions of bloggers, and other online commentators who would want to attend, would qualify as journalists and could secure those prized passes.

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"I don't have an answer for that," said Mattie Powell-Taylor, courtroom deputy for U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who has been assigned the Libby case. "There's not a general way that we handle it. It's based on how the judge wants to handle it."

Criminal trials are, of course, generally open to the public. But because courtrooms in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia tend to have relatively small areas for spectators, court officials have established a policy of preferential treatment that guarantees seats for professional journalists.

At last week's status conference in the Microsoft antitrust case, a guard outside the courtroom instructed members of the press and members of the public to divide themselves into two separate lines. The guard allowed the journalists to enter the courtroom a few minutes before the public and told them they could sit in the two front rows.

It's hardly clear whether a trial of Libby on charges of lying to FBI agents and a grand jury will happen. Republican power brokers hoping to avoid such a spectacle could apply pressure to Libby to negotiate a plea bargain with prosecutors, for instance, or the charges levied by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald could be dropped or modified.

Even if the court doesn't deny a blogger the right to stand in the media line, members of the mainstream media might.

But if a trial does happen, bloggers could face uncharted legal territory.

When the U.S. Appeals Court, which shares the same building, heard one high-profile case last year, the court required members of the news media to submit letters to request a spot among the limited number of seats reserved for journalists. But such situations arise only in highly visible cases, said Marilyn Sargent, the court's chief deputy clerk.

"If there's a blogger that wants to send us in a letter, I would certainly tell them if they're interested, to wait until there's an actual scenario," said Sargent, noting that she has not yet encountered such a request. "I wouldn't be able to respond on a general basis because we don't have a policy in place for something like that."

Normally, preferential treatment goes to those who can present identification from a "recognized press organization" or credentials awarded from other government entities such as the U.S. Congress or the Supreme Court, Sargent said.

Uncharted legal territory Outside the Beltway, treatment of bloggers appears to be a similarly unsettled area.

At the Delaware Chancery Court, which hosted the Oracle v. PeopleSoft trial last year, lead court clerk Patty Flynn said the court had the same ground rules for the media as for everyone else: no cell phones, no Palm-like devices and no computers in the courtroom.

The court hadn't seen any cases that were prominent enough to warrant preferential seating or credentialing for media in years, she said, declining to speculate on what might happen with bloggers in the future: "What we have now is overflow courtrooms with live TV feeds, so there's no need for anyone to feel offended."

There's a formal process, which a court official described as "liberal," for issuing official credentials to journalists at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, which has handed down its share of notable tech rulings.

Although the court's says "press credentials" are required to receive a court press pass, Jimell Griffin, an inspector for the U.S. Marshal Service at the court, said the screening process is more a matter of security. That's because, once armed with a general media pass--or, in the case of some high-profile trials, a special entry pass--media typically are allowed to sit in the seats closest to the defendants and plaintiffs.

"It's not that we're going to exclude one media source from another," Griffin said. "It's just that we want to verify these are legitimate sources of information and not relatives or criminals trying to get access to courts so they can smuggle stuff in or get high-level seating."

Though he hasn't actually received any requests from bloggers, they shouldn't have any trouble securing credentials, he said, as long as they go through the regular application and approval process and pass certain checks.

"We'd probably just check some Web sites," he went on. "We might ask bloggers if they have the site up, maybe ask for samples of their blogs."

But even if the court doesn't explicitly deny a blogger the right to stand in the media line, there's always the chance that members of the mainstream media might.

"If you go stand in a press line and you're not highly recognized by your comrades," said Sargent of the federal appeals court, "they'll be the ones that report you to me."