NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Secret Courts · June 4, 2007
Court OKs release of letters in Libby trial
June 4, 2007 · A federal trial judge in Washington, D.C., approved last week the release of more than 150 letters written in response to the upcoming sentencing of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
The letters are scheduled to be released after Libby’s sentencing Tuesday, with personal information such as the authors’ addresses and telephone numbers redacted.
In March, a federal jury convicted Libby of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators about his involvement in the outing of former CIA officer Valerie Plame. Libby will be sentenced Tuesday, and U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton asked the prosecution and defense, as well as any interested media organizations, to weigh in on whether he should release letters he received both supporting and opposing a heavy sentence for Libby.
While Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald took no position on the letters’ disclosure, Libby’s attorneys submitted a detailed response opposing their release absent permission from the authors.
Libby’s attorneys argued that courts traditionally have not released sentencing letters such as these, that their disclosure would discourage people from writing similar letters in the future, and that no beneficial purpose would be served by release.
Further, they asserted that the letters’ authors did not intend them to be public, and that their disclosure would subject both Libby and the authors to discussion and ridicule by Internet bloggers.
Walton disagreed with Libby, noting in his order, “This large number of sentencing letters, no less than the media’s desire to view the letters, is indicative of both the high level of public interest in these proceedings and the weightiness of the underlying charges. Especially in a case of this nature, the Court must strive to be as transparent as possible without compromising the fairness of the system or the ability of the Court to acquire information relevant and helpful to the sentencing process.”
He ordered that the letters be made public as soon after the sentencing as possible, declining to release them immediately because he has not yet been able to review all of them.
A coalition of media organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, had submitted a filing saying courts have recognized a public’s right to access judicial records – including letters sent to the court – because the letters “are efforts to influence the court in performing a judicial function.”
The media had urged the immediate release of letters from public officials or other public figures, as well as any letters cited in Libby’s or Fitzgerald’s sentencing memos, arguing that even a minor delay in publicizing judicial records unduly minimizes the value in open government.
Nathan Siegel, an attorney for the media coalition, said he supported the judge’s decision, even though he thought most of the letters should be released immediately.
“In general, I was very pleased with the decision,” Siegel said. “He indicated that he is contemplating what I think is likely to be the broadest possible release of these kinds of letters.”
(U.S. v. Libby, Media Counsel: Nathan Siegel, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP, Washington, D.C.) — JB