July 27, 2018 / 5:33 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. judge sceptical of bid for gag order on Stormy Daniels' lawyer

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal judge expressed scepticism on Friday at a request for a gag order from the former personal lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump against the lawyer for adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who is suing the president.

Michael Avenatti (C), lawyer for adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, walks out of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

At a hearing in Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero said he was reluctant to curtail the free speech rights of Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti. He did not issue a ruling, saying he would continue to consider the request.

Daniels, whose allegation of a sexual encounter with Trump made her a household name, is suing Trump to void a non-disclosure agreement under which Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen paid her $130,000 (99,176.08 pounds) not to discuss her alleged relationship with Trump in 2006 and 2007.

Trump has denied he had an affair with Daniels, saying she was paid to stop “false and extortionist accusations.”

Cohen’s lawyer, Brent Blakely, asked Otero to prohibit Avenatti from speaking publicly about the case, saying potential jurors could be influenced by hearing Avenatti’s public criticism of Cohen.

Avenatti has appeared in more than 100 television interviews since Daniels sued Trump, calling Cohen a “moron” engaged in criminal conduct, according to a legal motion from Blakely.

At the hearing, Otero said the legal standard for a gag order with “prior restraint” to prohibit Avenatti from speaking was a high one.

“In order to get a prior restraint gag order you have to show a substantial likelihood that the comments are going to have a prejudicial effect on your client’s right to a fair trial and you haven’t done that,” Otero told Blakely.

‘BAG OF TRICKS’

Otero singled out an argument Blakely made in court papers that Avenatti, in speaking publicly about the case, was pulling the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protection of free speech “out of his tiny bag of tricks.”

“The Constitution is the highest right in the land and is not a trick or illusion,” Otero said.

Otero had suspended the case for three months after Cohen’s home and office were raided in April as part of an investigation by Manhattan federal prosecutors into his business dealings to avoid any overlap with that probe. A person familiar with the investigation told Reuters prosecutors are looking at possible campaign law violations linked to the $130,000 payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

Cohen has not been charged with any crime.

Blakely on Friday asked the court to extend the suspension of the case in Los Angeles for another 90 days.

Cohen is also the focus of another payoff scandal, about paying for the rights to Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story about an alleged affair with Trump.

Another lawyer for Cohen, Lanny Davis, released a recording of Trump and Cohen discussing the payment, which aired this week on CNN.

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown

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