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.

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.

Seventh Circuit closes portion of hearing on document access in terrorism suspect case

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Secret Courts | News | June 5, 2014
June 5, 2014

After 30 minutes of public arguments, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit called a closed-door “secret hearing” on Wednesday in the U.S. government’s appeal of an Illinois district court decision to open certain surveillance records to defense attorneys with top security clearances.

The three-judge panel ordered everyone without sufficient security clearance out of the courtroom, including reporters and the attorneys to defendant-appellee Adel Daoud. Daoud, who the government has suspected of terrorist activities, was charged with attempting to ignite a bomb at a Chicago bar in 2012.

In the public part of the hearing, a U.S. attorney argued that disclosure of surveillance records could harm national security. Judge Richard Posner then ordered the secret meeting, clearing the courtroom of everyone except those with proper security clearance, namely a U.S. attorney and FBI and Department of Justice officials.

Delaware Supreme Court dismisses appeal in Al Jazeera contract sealing case

Bradleigh Chance | Secret Courts | News | June 5, 2014
June 5, 2014

The Delaware Supreme Court dismissed an appeal this week of an order requiring Al Jazeera to file an almost completely unredacted version of its complaint against AT&T from a 2013 contract dispute.

Despite having both parties file briefs and deliver oral arguments, the high court threw out the appeal without explaining why.

Florida Supreme Court rules to close out public, media in redistricting case hearings

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Secret Courts | News | May 28, 2014
May 28, 2014

The Florida Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday to allow third-party records and email to be admitted as evidence in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan, but also held that the materials must be under seal and the courtroom closed when attorneys discuss the materials.

This ruling overturns an appellate court's decision not to let in the records of political consultant Pat Bainter and his consulting firm, Data Targeting, Inc., which Bainter argued contained trade secrets. The League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other democratic voters had wanted to use the documents as evidence in their challenge to the redistricting plan, which they say was created in an illegal manner and unfairly favors Republicans.

Legal site releases judges' financial disclosure data, highlighting teaching fees and security exemptions

Jamie Schuman | Secret Courts | News | May 22, 2014
May 22, 2014

The National Law Journal published on Thursday financial disclosure reports from 2012 for 257 of 258 federal appellate judges. Judges redacted information from 112 of these reports.

Each year, federal judges are required to fill out financial disclosure reports, and the forms from 2012 are the ones most recently available. The reports help expose conflicts of interest that can lead judges to recuse themselves from cases. They include such information as investments, outside income, gifts, and travel reimbursements.

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.