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Court broadens access to documents, revives suit over police report

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  1. Freedom of Information
NINTH CIRCUIT--The public and the news media have a right of access to materials submitted in civil cases in support…

NINTH CIRCUIT–The public and the news media have a right of access to materials submitted in civil cases in support of summary judgment motions, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) held in mid-August. The ruling means the San Jose Mercury News can intervene in a sex discrimination suit against the Mountain View police department in order to argue that an independent report on sex discrimination in the department should be public.

The court overturned a lower court’s holding that no right to documents in civil proceedings exists at all, and remanded the case for a careful balancing of the interests at stake.

The court noted that it was only overturning the lower court’s decision to prevent the newspaper from intervening. It did not take a position on whether the newspaper would ultimately prevail in its request for access to a report filed under seal by the city, the appellate court said.

The court noted that while the law creates a presumption of access to such materials, even before judgment has been entered, it can be overcome after a judge weighs the interests in access against any “sufficiently important countervailing interests.”

The newspaper intervened to obtain access to the city report, which was prepared by an independent expert who reviewed the allegations made about the work environment in the police department.

A lawyer for the Mercury News told the Associated Press that the court’s decision to extend the presumption of access to earlier stages of civil cases was important. Without pre-verdict access, a government agency can settle a case involving an embarrassing report and “the public may never know the extent of possible wrongdoing,” the attorney said. Information also may be less newsworthy at the end of a long trial, he said.

The suit claimed that the police department was a hostile working environment for women between 1987 and 1996. The city asked an independent expert, Geraldine Randall, to investigate the claims. U.S. District Judge James Ware ordered the city to share her report with lawyers for the two women, but granted requests by both sides in February 1998 to seal the document from the public. (San Jose Mercury News vs. U.S. District Court; Media Counsel: Edward P. Davis, Palo Alto)