TENTH CIRCUIT–A federal appeals panel in Denver (10th Cir.) held in late July that the public has no right of access under the constitution, common law or statute to documents filed by criminal defense attorneys seeking compensation for representing indigent defendants at public expense.
The court determined that the records, although filed in the court, are not “judicial documents” to which the First Amendment right of access adheres because they are not “directly related to the process of adjudication.” However, the court held that trial judges have discretion to release limited information as long as a defendant’s fair trial or other constitutional rights are not jeopardized by the disclosure.
Twenty-three alleged gang members went on trial in federal court in New Mexico for murder, drug and racketeering charges. Unable to pay for counsel, the defendants were represented by public defenders pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act. In February 1996, the district court granted a defense motion to place under seal all documents related to the attorneys’ compensation after defense counsel argued that they contained privileged information.
In July 1996, the Albuquerque Journal sought access to the fee documents and related hearing transcripts, arguing that the news media have a constitutional, common law and statutory right to review at least redacted copies of the documents. The defendants objected, claiming that the release of the documents violated their fair trial rights.
In February 1997, the court ordered the documents released after each defendant’s sentencing. Recognizing a qualified First Amendment right of access, the court held that the defendants’ fair trial rights outweighed the public’s right of access until the end of trial. The court also noted that the Criminal Justice Act gives the court discretion to seal documents when the defendants’ constitutional rights are implicated.
The newspaper appealed, seeking immediate release of all the documents and arguing that redaction would sufficiently protect the defendants’ rights. The defendants did not contest release of the amount of fees paid, but sought to maintain confidentiality with respect to the documentation used to support the fees claim. (United States v. Gonzales; Media Counsel: William Dixon, Albuquerque)