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.

White paper: Access to divorce court proceedings

Intruding into some cases may appear unseemly, but openness is essential for accountability
Feature
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Jamie Schuman

Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

The unsealing of actress Jeri Lynn Ryan's divorce case prompted her husband to withdraw from a U.S. Senate election.

This is a condensed version of a white paper on access to family court proceedings, which will be published soon on our web site.

Davis Wright Tremaine media lawyer Alonzo Wickers IV likes to point out that access battles for divorce-court records helped launch President Barack Obama’s political career.

When Obama first ran for U.S. Senate, in 2004, he trailed opponent Blair Hull in the Democratic primary in Illinois.

Eric Garner grand jury case

May 12, 2015

The Reporters Committee and 28 other media organizations filed an amicus brief in support of an appeal of the denial of access to information from the Eric Garner grand jury investigation in Long Island, N.Y. The New York Post, along with a coalition of public interest groups that included the NYCLU, Legal Aid Society, the NYC Public Advocate and the Staten Island branch of the NAACP, petitioned for release of documents, transcripts, videos, photos, and other materials from the grand jury. Garner was killed when NYPD officers used a chokehold on him on July 17, 2014. The New York trial court ruled that none of the petitioners had articulated a "compelling and particularized need" for the material. On appeal, the Reporters Committee amicus brief argued that the public interest was best served by disclosing the grand jury materials in this case.

Reporters Committee and media coalition move to unseal prosecutions of Colombian paramilitary leaders

Hannah Bloch-Wehba | Secret Courts | News | April 7, 2015
News
April 7, 2015

A coalition of media organizations and journalists led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed petitions to unseal secretive criminal prosecutions of four Colombian paramilitary leaders who were extradited to the United States in 2008. CBS Broadcasting Inc., Sergio Gomez, a U.S.-based reporter for El Tiempo, Daniel Pacheco, a U.S. based reporter for Caracol and El Espectador, and Univision have joined the Reporters Committee in this effort.

In re WP Company LLC (U.S. v. McDonnell)

March 27, 2015

The Washington Post sought access to completed jury questionnaires in the criminal trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court released the completed questionnaires, but with names and juror numbers redacted, making it impossible for the public to know which questionnaires corresponded with empaneled jurors. The Washington Post filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Fourth Circuit, seeking an order directing the district court to identify which questionnaires were completed by seated jurors. The Reporters Committee and 22 media organizations filed an amicus brief, arguing that the First Amendment provides a presumptive right of access to juror questionnaires, which are merely a written form of oral voir dire, which is presumptively open to the public. The brief argues that the right of access includes the right to identify which questionnaires match with seated jurors.

Grand jury secrecy comes at a cost

Commentary
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Tom Isler

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.

Fourth Circuit invalidates gag order and sealing order in Blankenship criminal trial

Tom Isler | Secret Courts | News | March 5, 2015
News
March 5, 2015

A federal appeals court today invalidated a gag order and sealing order that had been entered in the criminal case against Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy Co., who faces charges stemming from the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 people.

The ruling is a victory for the media, which had been unable to access many court filings in the case and had been unable to discuss the substance of the charges with lawyers, parties, victims, victims’ family members, and others, who were subject to a broad gag order.

Media groups appeal gag and sealing orders in Blankenship mining case

Tom Isler | Secret Courts | News | February 25, 2015
News
February 25, 2015

Media organizations are fighting to overturn a gag order and sealing order entered in connection with the criminal trial of Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy. The matter is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In re The Wall Street Journal

February 20, 2015

Donald Blankenship was charged with conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards and securities fraud, among other things, stemming from the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010, which killed 29 people. Immediately following the indictment, a federal judge ordered the parties, attorneys, witnesses, families of victims and others from making any statements to the media, and restricted all access to filings in the case. A coalition of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, National Public Radio, and the Charleston Gazette, intervened to overturn the restrictive orders, but the judge denied the request and found that news coverage was sufficiently likely to prejudice Blankenship’s right to a fair trial. The media intervenors appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

Grand jury secrecy comes at a cost

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