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.

Holding out against cameras at the high court

As Justices remain skeptical of camera access, spectators stand in the rain and hope
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Jamie Schuman

News Media & The Law photo by Jamie Schuman

Spectators line up outside the Supreme Court hoping to get one of the seats in the courtroom.

It was pouring rain the last day the Supreme Court heard oral argument this spring, but that didn’t stop James Armstrong from waiting in a line more than 50-yards long to try to get a seat in the courtroom.

He wanted to see the case, a patent dispute, but braving the elements was the only way to do so because the Supreme Court does not televise oral arguments.

Umbrella in hand and in town from California, Armstrong questioned this policy.

“Justice should be done in the open,” he said.

Kennedy v. Orszag

January 21, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press put together a media coalition and successfully intervened to unseal records in a child-support modification case in D.C. Superior Court. The parties in the case are former Office of Management and Budget director and current Citigroup executive Peter Orszag and his ex-wife Cameron Kennedy. Orszag had tried to seal his financial records that were evidence in the case. The coalition argued that sealing runs counter to the presumptive right of access under common law to court documents in civil trials in Washington, D.C., that the public has a legitimate interest in learning how courts decide child-support matters, and that Orszag's purported justifications for sealing documents were insufficient to overcome the presumption of access.

In Re Applications to Unseal

May 8, 2014

The Reporters Committee wrote a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in support of an effort to unseal documents in a 15 year-old case, USA v. John Doe. In the underlying case, Felix Sater was accused of large-scale financial crimes, and pleaded guilty to lesser charges after agreeing to cooperate with government officials. Appellants argue that the secrecy the government afforded to Sater – his case was not on the public docket for over a decade – allowed him to defraud other investors. We argued that it is especially important that the Court follow the constitutional and common-law rights of access in this case because the press has a duty to monitor whether the government is giving informants special protections.

Ninth Circuit keeps Reporters Committee amicus brief in NSL case sealed more than six weeks

Jamie Schuman | Secret Courts | News | May 15, 2014
News
May 15, 2014

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on Wednesday that it will wait until May 23 to unseal an amicus brief that contains no confidential information and that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed more than five weeks ago.

The Reporters Committee and 18 other media organizations filed the brief in support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s challenged to the National Security Letters program on April 8.

Amici were required to file materials under seal, but the Reporters Committee filed a motion with its brief asking the Court to unseal the document.

"The Court cannot constitutionally seal this brief,” the Reporters Committee wrote in the motion. “Amici have had no access to confidential materials in the case; the brief only includes information that is already public; and there are clear public policy reasons for requiring that the materials be open.”

A.L. v. L.A. County Dep't of Children and Family Services

May 8, 2014

The Reporters Committee joined a letter by California news organizations urging the state Supreme Court to review a decision that limits public access to juvenile dependency proceedings. The challenge to the closure of a courtroom was brought by the Los Angeles Times.

O'Keefe v. Schmitz

May 1, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and four media organizations intervened in a political speech case, asking a Wisconsin federal court to unseal records in a civil suit that alleges that the state misused an investigatory tool to retaliate against perceived political adversaries. The underlying case alleges that the so-called John Doe proceeding was used by state prosecutors to chill conservative speech and to drum up Democratic opposition to Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker. One of the conservative targets has challenged the state’s investigation in federal court, and much of the material was placed under seal.

Flynt v. Lombardi

March 27, 2014

The Reporters Committee, joined by 13 other media organization, filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit seeking information about a case brought by death row prisoners. The prisoners' case at the district court level in Missouri focused on the lack of information available to the public about where the state gets its execution drugs. The court sealed several docket entries, one order, and many of the documents it relied upon to make decisions in the case. Publisher Larry Flynt moved to intervene in the case for the limited purpose of challenging those sealing orders; that motion was denied and he appealed. The Reporters Committee brief addressed the issue of standing to intervene for the purpose of unsealing court records, arguing that access is a public right and any denial is a "concrete harm."

Records in corporate challenge to government product-safety database must be open

Jamie Schuman | Secret Courts | News | April 17, 2014
News
April 17, 2014

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit instructed a Maryland district court yesterday to unseal in its entirety a consumer safety case that a company had sought to close on the grounds that disclosure would injure its reputation.

In 2011, a yet-to-be-identified manufacturer sued to stop the Consumer Product Safety Commission from publishing on an online database a report that one of its products caused an infant to die. After the district court sealed most of the record and let the company use a pseudonym, three consumer advocacy groups – Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union – challenged the decision.

Ninth Circuit reinstates case challenging Calif. superior court record delay policy

Michael Rooney | Secret Courts | News | April 7, 2014
News
April 7, 2014

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) reversed the dismissal of a challenge to the Ventura County, Calif. Superior Court’s document policy, which withheld from public inspection records filed with the court until administrators there completed processing – a procedure that could take several days, and, in some instances, much longer.

In early 2012, Courthouse News Services filed the action in federal court, claiming that the Ventura County Superior Court’s policy violated its First Amendment right of public access and its right to gather and disseminate news.

A lower court had previously dismissed CNS's suit on a rule that “permit[s] the federal courts to decline to decide matters ... which implicate sensitive state interests.”

At Guantanamo, showing up counts

Having boots on the ground lets Carol Rosenberg cover the military facility like few others
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Carol Rosenberg

Unlike most beat reporters, the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg doesn’t have the luxury of moseying on downtown to ply her sources at City Hall or the local courthouse.

Rosenberg’s beat is the Guantanamo Bay detention center, which means that she gets there under U.S. military custody, sleeps in a tent, and reports under constant observation. And sources are hard to come by.

But for Rosenberg, there is no other way to cover Guantanamo, which she began writing about when it first opened just months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “Showing up counts,” is her mantra, and that shows in her coverage.