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.

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
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
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
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.

More Reporters Committee coverage of Guantanamo

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Articles related to Guantanamo proceedings on the Reporters Committee's site:

Ninth Circuit begins live video streaming en banc proceedings

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Michael Rooney

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) announced in December that it would become the first federal appeals court in the country to live stream video coverage of its major cases. The court began providing streaming arguments over the Internet for the media and general public on Dec. 9, 2013.

“The Ninth Circuit has a long history of using advances in technology to make the court more accessible and transparent," the court's Chief Judge Alex Kozinski told the Los Angeles Times. "Video streaming is a way to open the court’s doors even wider so that more people can see and hear what transpires in the courtrooms, particularly in regard to some of our most important cases.”