Public has a First Amendment right to access sentencing records for Connecticut man

Jose Ochoa | February 20, 2018
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is urging a Connecticut judge to unseal two court records related to the sentencing of a man convicted of sex trafficking a minor and possessing heroin with intent to distribute.
 
In the case, United States v. Gomez, the Reporters Committee is representing Connecticut newspaper The Day, which intervened in the case to unseal the sentencing memoranda for Ramon Gomez. Gomez received an eight-year sentence in federal prison with five years of supervised release and will be required to register as a sex offender upon his release from prison. 
 
The Day covered the sentencing proceedings and reported on the contents of the government’s sentencing memorandum after it was first filed publicly. The document was later placed under seal by the court after the government realized it had inadvertently filed the document publicly. Gomez also filed a motion to submit his sentencing memorandum under seal, which was granted by the court.
 
The Reporters Committee argued on behalf of The Day that keeping the documents sealed violates the public’s presumptive right of access to court records under the First Amendment and common law. A right to access records in criminal trials, including pre- and post-trial documents and court proceedings, has been recognized in several U.S. Supreme Court cases.
 
Access to court records helps the public and press understand what the judicial system is doing in their communities so they can hold it accountable. In particular, sentencing documents — which provide information about a core judicial function — are a direct reflection of how the courts are administering justice.
 
For example, the minimum mandatory sentence for sex trafficking of a minor is 10 years. Because it obtained the publicly-filed version of the government’s sentencing memorandum, The Day was able to report that the government sought a lesser sentence for Gomez because of his “substantial assistance” with the government’s investigation.
 
This case is particularly concerning because both the government’s and Gomez’s requests to seal the records were also filed under seal, meaning the public does not know their arguments for keeping the memoranda sealed. 
 
A key focus of the Reporters Committee’s arguments for unsealing is based on a number of rulings in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that have held that once information is publicly disclosed, it necessarily remains public regardless of whether the information was meant to be confidential.
 
This case is one of many the Reporters Committee has litigated to improve public access to court records, especially in cases where the federal government is a party.
 
In January 2017, the Reporters Committee filed a motion to unseal court records in United States v. Drake, the criminal leak investigation and prosecution of National Security Agency officer Thomas Drake under the Espionage Act. The documents successfully unsealed – including search warrants for Drake’s home, belongings, and emails with members of the media – allowed the public to better understand the legal tools that the Department of Justice uses to investigate leaks and surveil targets of these investigations, including journalists.
 
The Reporters Committee and Time Inc. also won a lawsuit in November 2017 that led to the unsealing of settlement records from a class action lawsuit related to the employment of undocumented workers in the construction of Trump Tower. The records from the Hardy et al. v. Kaszycki & Sons Contractors, Inc. et al. case, where Donald J. Trump and his companies were named as defendants, revealed the terms of the more than $1 million settlement for the first time and provided the public greater insight into the president’s past business dealings.