Federal court rules to keep Calif. fire documents public

Haley Behre | Secret Courts | Feature | February 2, 2012

A federal trial court in California granted a newspaper's request for documents in a civil lawsuit involving a 2007 forest fire that burned down tens of thousands of acres northeast of Sacramento, ruling that the writings became public records once they were filed with the court.

The ruling stems from a suit filed by Sierra Pacific Industries, a family-owned forest products company based in California, against the Department of Agriculture claiming that the government agency would not allow its employees to be deposed in a related state case.

The Sacramento Bee sought access to the records, which, according to court documents, were depositions of Forest Service employees from the state litigation over the forest fire.

“The media cannot intervene in every single case, but there are cases where they are important enough where you have to try and draw the line and say, no, the courts are public institutions and the public has a right to know,” said Karl Olson, who represented the newspaper.

The issue the court examined was whether discovery material becomes judicial records once it is attached to a party’s motion for summary judgment. If they become judicial records, there is a presumption of access to them.

The judge ruled that the documents, once attached to the motion, were judicial records. The decision represents one side of a split among courts on the issue of which discovery documents filed in court proceedings are subject to a presumption of access.

In some federal circuits, including the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.), the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over federal trial courts in California, the presumption of openness applies to any document physically filed with the court and attached to a motion that, like one for summary judgment, would dispose of the claim. Other jurisdictions, however, distinguish between documents merely physically attached to a motion and those that are actually relevant and considered by the court in deciding whether to grant or deny the motion. In these states, documents having no relevance to the court’s decision-making process are not subject to a presumptive right of access even though they were filed with a motion.

Finding that a right of access applies to the documents at issue, the judge then balanced that right against the party’s interest in keeping the information secret. Sierra Pacific claimed that the Privacy Act required that the documents, because they were transcripts of depositions with Forest Service employees, remain confidential. The Privacy Act bars federal agencies from disclosing information about a person without his or her consent.

The judge rejected this argument, ruling that the Privacy Act did not outweigh the right of public access, particularly since the information was already available to the public “in one form or another.”

Olson said the public also has a right to know “because the case involved a fire that burned 65,000 acres and blackened the skies of Central Valley in California for quite some time. Also because you have a major corporation and the U.S. government pointing fingers at each other over who started the fire. There is a strong public interest in finding out what the parties’ arguments are and what the basis is for the court’s eventual ruling."

A Sierra Pacific Industries representative could not be reached for comment.