Independent journalist Johnny Dwyer sued to unseal case documents in a criminal proceeding against a John Doe defendant who pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges. The Eastern District of New York granted a motion to close the courtroom and to seal all case documents. The sealing order was itself sealed. Dwyer intervened and sought to unseal the record. The district court denied the motion to unseal. Dwyer appealed to the Second Circuit.
The Reporters Committee filed an amicus brief arguing that the blanket sealing of documents and closing of court proceedings in criminal cases, particularly where the defendant’s identity is withheld from the public, impedes public scrutiny of government conduct and violates the First Amendment. The brief stresses the role that openness plays in the criminal justice system, and identified a troubling number of ordinary criminal cases in the Eastern District against anonymous defendants under near-total seal. The brief argues that the names of criminal defendants are presumptively public and that entries for court filings must be placed on the public docket. The brief also argues that the district court must meet a higher burden to justify near-total secrecy than if the restrictions on access were more limited, and that the court failed to properly justify extreme secrecy in this case.