RHODE ISLAND–In late May, the Supreme Court in Providence unanimously struck down a lower court’s policy that sealed all court files in criminal cases involving child victims of sexual assault.
The Supreme Court rejected Judge Joseph Rodgers Jr.’s broad interpretation of a state statute rendering confidential records “concern[ing] the identity of a victim of child molestation sexual assault.” A person is guilty of child molestation if he or she has sexual contact with a person who is under 14 years of age.
The court held that releasing redacted documents was consistent with the legislative intent of the statute to protect minor victims of sex crimes from “further trauma and embarrassment,” which the court characterized as a “compelling interest.” The court further observed that the presiding judge’s sweeping interpretation of the statute was inconsistent with the public’s First Amendment right of access to criminal trials, which is “beyond dispute.”
The high court directed Rodgers to implement a new policy under which the Superior Court would maintain a “public” file and a “confidential” file. The public file would contain redacted documents in which the victim’s name is either obliterated or substituted by a fictitious name.
In March 1996, the Providence Journal asked to view records in child molestation cases, specifying that it sought access only to documents that did not identify alleged victims, or to redacted copies of documents that identified the alleged victims. Rodgers denied the request, stating that the statute made “no provision” for redaction.
The Journal filed suit in Superior Court the following month, arguing that the legislature only intended to seal those court records that identify the victim, and that the remaining portions of the court records must remain available for public inspection. The newspaper claimed that the court policy violated its rights under the U.S. and state constitutions and common law. The case was certified in January 1997 for adjudication before the Supreme Court. (Providence Journal Co. v. Rodgers; Media Counsel: Joseph Cavanagh, Providence)