Secret Courts

This section covers access to courts. Courtrooms traditionally have been open to the public, but judges often close proceedings or seal documents when they feel secrecy is justified. This section also covers state and federal laws governing camera coverage of trials.

Expunging criminal records

Journalists worry laws make criminal record sealing too easy
Cover Story
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Bradleigh Chance

The Alaska legislature passed a bill this spring that would have denied access to criminal case documents if the accused is acquitted or the case is dismissed, but Gov. Sean Parnell vetoed the proposed law in late August.

Alaska is not alone in trying to restrict public access to records of defendants who are not convicted. Some other states either seal materials from certain cases that resulted in an acquittal or dismissal, or remove that listing from a person’s public “rap sheet” altogether. With the latter process, known as expungement, people have no way of knowing that a person was arrested.

Comment on Eastern District of Louisiana proposal to restrict juror interviews

August 15, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Louisiana Press Association, and Gannett Co., Inc. and its six Louisiana outlets filed a public comment in opposition to proposed changes to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Louisiana Local Rule 47.5 (Interviewing Jurors). The proposed rule would ban jurors from ever discussing a wide range of topics about deliberations and why they voted as they did. The Reporters Committee argues that the proposed rule change is inconsistent with the First Amendment rights of not only the jurors, but also of the news media that covers the courts and the public that needs to know how justice is administered.

Hawaii high court upholds high standards for open proceedings in murder case

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Secret Courts | News | July 17, 2014
July 17, 2014

The Supreme Court of Hawaii this week in Oahu Publications Inc. v. The Honorable Karen Ahn upheld a strong public right of access to criminal proceedings and announced a series of procedures to protect that right. The ruling comes after a trial court judge held five secret sessions and sealed the transcripts of those sessions during a high-profile murder trial.

The decision stressed that judicial proceedings are presumptively open. The high court held that, in order to close a courtroom or seal transcripts, a judge must show on the record what compelling interest would be harmed by public disclosure, the substantial risk to that harm, and any alternatives to public access that the court considered but found insufficiently protective.

Federal court declines to unseal records on investigation into Wisconsin Republican campaign finances

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Secret Courts | News | June 23, 2014
June 23, 2014

A district court in Wisconsin denied a motion to unseal documents last week in a lawsuit attempting to end an investigation into Wisconsin Republican campaign finances.

On May 1, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with four other media organizations, filed a motion to intervene and unseal the entirety of the parties’ filings in the federal court proceeding O’Keefe v. Schmitz et. al.

In re: National Security Letter

April 9, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 18 other media organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in April in support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s challenge to the National Security Letters program. The media brief argues that the non-disclosure provision on the National Security Letter statute is a classic prior restraint on speech, and the Northern District of California’s failure to term it as such threatens an important protection on which journalists rely.

Delaware chief judge says courts will again consider arbitration program, defends old system

Bradleigh Chance | Secret Courts | News | June 20, 2014
June 20, 2014

Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine announced in his State of the Judiciary Address this month that the court is “working on a different approach” to an arbitration program that will replace its rejected predecessor.

The initial program failed in 2011 after a federal district court declared it unconstitutional, saying it infringed upon the public’s First Amendment right to access court proceedings. Strine did not provide many details about the proposal, but some experts are worried that the plan could attempt to unreasonably restrict access again. The new program should be up for approval from Delaware’s General Assembly by January 2015, Strine said.

Appeals court overturns disclosure of government surveillance materials in suspected terrorist's trial

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Secret Courts | News | June 17, 2014
June 17, 2014

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) reversed a trial court ruling that would have reportedly been the first case in which defense attorneys obtained access to government surveillance court materials.

The three-judge panel sided with the government Monday, stating that the disclosure of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court records to the attorneys of Adel Daoud would pose a threat to national security. Daoud was arrested in 2012 for attempting to bomb a Chicago bar in what turned out to be a sting operation.

The court submitted its public opinion with a sealed, classified opinion that provides more explanation.

Judge Richard Posner wrote that the district court erred in thinking the defense attorneys’ security clearances entitled them access to the materials, which he believed could pose a threat to national security.

Media rights advocates object to Utah court rule revision on video-recording of cases

Bradleigh Chance | Secret Courts | News | June 17, 2014
June 17, 2014

Utah’s court system began allowing TV cameras, smartphones and laptops into public court proceedings last year, but officials revised that rule after repeatedly denying one man’s requests to record family law proceedings.

The revision reverses the presumption that video cameras are allowed in family court proceedings, and, instead, lets the judge weigh a number of factors to decide when taping is allowed. Though judges made the rule effective immediately, Utah’s Judicial Council is considering comments from the public on the proposal until June 24 and plans to permanently vote on the rule change in August.

In January, family law attorney Eric Johnson began making dozens of recording requests for hundreds of divorce cases. Only one request was granted.

Colorado court refuses to close jury selection process in Holmes theater-shooting case

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Secret Courts | News | June 13, 2014
June 13, 2014

A Colorado district court judge on Wednesday rejected the defendant’s request to close the jury selection process for the Aurora theater shooting trial.

Arapahoe County Judge Carlos Samour denied the request for complete closure to the public and the media and the prosecution’s request for partial closure of the selection process. Instead, the court opted to open the entire process, only withholding the names of prospective and seated jurors and the jury questionnaires.

Georgia court remands decision on recording trial, citing trouble with defining 'news media'

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Secret Courts | News | June 12, 2014
June 12, 2014

In a decision on whether a student could record court proceedings, the Court of Appeals of Georgia stated this week that courts risk harming key constitutional rights by attempting to distinguish who is “legitimate ‘news media.’”

Joshua McLaurin, a student at Yale Law School, asked to record criminal proceedings in two different counties in July 2013 for a project examining the experiences of impoverished defendants in the Georgia criminal justice system.

McLaurin cited two different Georgia laws in his application: Uniform Superior Court Rule 22 and a section of the Georgia code regarding general standards for requesting permission to record court proceedings. The trial court held that Rule 22 only applies to news media, so it applied the Georgia code instead.