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.

Grand jury secrecy comes at a cost

Tom Isler | Secret Courts | News | January 13, 2015
January 13, 2015

Two new lawsuits are challenging the continued secrecy of the grand jury investigations related to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. The suits demonstrate just how secret the information gathered by a grand jury is, while also making a compelling case for the public interest in greater access.

First step in unsealing court records: try asking

Sometimes a simple letter from a reporter will prompt a court to disclose sealed documents
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Tom Isler

Sometimes, it’s amazing what you can get if you ask nicely.

Last month, judges in two different courts unsealed records in response to informal letter requests from journalists — not formal motions prepared by lawyers. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press similarly caused documents to be unsealed last year after sending a letter to the clerk of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, asking that the court to publicly explain its decision to seal a docket in an appellate case.

These are encouraging results for journalists or news organizations that do not have the resources to hire a lawyer every time they want secret court documents to be made public.

Courthouse News Service v. Planet

November 7, 2014

Courthouse News Service (CNS) filed a federal lawsuit against a California state superior court for delaying access to newly filed unlimited civil complaints for days or weeks. CNS argued that the First Amendment provides a right of access to civil complaints that attaches immediately upon filing, and its reporters should be able to inspect newly filed civil complaints the day they are filed. A federal district court granted the defendant-court's motion to dismiss, finding that the type of access requested was not required under the First Amendment. The Reporters Committee and 25 other media organizations argued that a First Amendment right of access attaches to civil complaints when they are filed. The brief argued that the public has a right to know what matters are occupying space on court dockets and consuming public resources, and that complaints reveal a wealth of information about how citizens use the judicial branch.

United States v. Mohammed Hamzah Khan

October 24, 2014

A 19-year-old American, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, was arrested as he tried to fly from the United States to Turkey (ultimately to go to Iraq or Syria), and he was charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorist organizations. The government moved to have Khan's detention hearing closed to the public, because privacy interests of third-party minors would be implicated. The government filed its motion and brief under seal, so the precise justification to close the hearing was unknown. The Reporters Committee wrote a letter to express concern about closing the detention hearing, arguing that there is a well-established First Amendment right of access to preliminary proceedings in criminal cases, which may only be overcome by an overriding interest based on findings that closure was essential to preserve higher values and was narrowly tailored to serve that interest.

Kennedy v. Orszag

January 21, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, on behalf of a coalition of media organizations, 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, arguing that release could damage his efforts to return to government service; that his confidentiality agreement with Citigroup exempted his salary from disclosure, and that family court trials do not have the same tradition of openness as other civil proceedings. The Reporters Committee argued that sealing runs counter to the presumptive right of access under common law to court documents in civil trials in Washington, DC.

Tweeters Beware

Use of Twitter and other communications is allowed in some courtrooms but not others
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Jamie Schuman

At George Zimmerman’s trial last summer, Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman wrote traditional stories but also tweeted courtroom highlights, sometimes more than 50 times a day.

“It provided pieces of information to followers of Twitter who wouldn’t otherwise be looking at more conventional news sources, like reading the newspaper or watching an evening newscast,” Stutzman said.

While the circuit court in Seminole County, Florida, let reporters use Twitter to cover the Trayvon Martin murder trial, many judges ban courtroom tweets. They say the practice can distract people at hearings or impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But as tweeting becomes more routine across newsrooms, many crime reporters want to use the technology in courtrooms, too.

Sexual assault and military secrecy

Reporters reveal scandals despite challenges to public access
Cover Story
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Jamie Schuman

Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Karisa King called the military the most closed institution that she has ever covered.

Getting information from the armed forces is “like trying to squeeze blood out of a rock,” she said at a panel on covering sexual assault at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference this summer. “It doesn’t happen. It’s incredibly difficult.”

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.