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.

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.

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.