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Court ordered to review sealed records request

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SECOND CIRCUIT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 13, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SECOND CIRCUIT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 13, 2006

Court ordered to review sealed records request

  • A year-and-a-half-old request to open sealed documents must be considered immediately, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday, citing both First Amendment and common law rights.

Jan. 13, 2006  ·   The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) ordered a district court to immediately decide whether to open hundreds of pages of sealed documents in a civil lawsuit, overturning the lower court’s decision to wait until it had ruled whether to dismiss the case.

Two media companies have been waiting 18 months for the court to open sealed documents concerning a request by a shopping mall group and its founder to dismiss a fraud case against them. Judge Robert A. Katzmann, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, ordered the U.S. District Court in Syracuse, N.Y., to act quickly because of “the importance of immediate access where a right to access is found.”

“The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” Katzmann wrote.

A “strong presumption of access attaches” to documents submitted in connection with a request to dismiss a case, “under both the common law and the First Amendment,” Katzmann wrote. Deciding a case, “is a formal act of government, the basis of which should, absent exceptional circumstances, be subject to public scrutiny,” he wrote.

The ruling came after The Herald Co., publisher of The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., asked the court to review the district court’s decision to postpone deciding whether to open sealed documents. The Herald Co. and Capital Newspapers Division of the Hearst Corp. had sued for access to sealed documents connected to a request to dismiss a case.

The district court transferred the media’s request to a magistrate judge who, nine months later, ruled to hold the request “in abeyance” until the district court ruled on the case. Four months later, the district court upheld the magistrate judge’s decision.

The appeals court rejected the defendants’ argument that access to requests to dismiss a case depends on the outcome of the case. “Where documents are used to determine litigants’ substantive legal rights, a strong presumption of access attaches,” Katzmann wrote.

The extent to which the documents were relied on in deciding the case does not matter, he wrote. The “rationale behind access is to allow the public an opportunity to assess the correctness of the judge’s decision [so] documents that the judge should have considered or relied upon, but did not, are just as deserving of disclosure as those that actually entered into the judge’s decision,” Katzmann explained.

Nor did it matter if the media’s motive is to “dissect the business practices of one of the defendants in this case” rather than monitor the judicial process or promote public confidence in the judicial system. “Assessing the motives of journalists risks self-serving judicial decisions tipping in favor of secrecy,” Katzmann wrote.

“The presumption of access here can be overcome only by specific, on-the-record findings that higher values necessitate a narrowly tailored sealing,” the appeals court concluded.

The case began when several partners sued their company and founder, alleging that they had been defrauded millions of dollars. The company, Pyramid Co. of Onondaga, N.Y. asked the court to dismiss the case. The parties filed several thousand documents concerning the request for dismissal, and 200 pages remain sealed, according to The Post-Standard.

Attorneys for the parties could not be reached for comment.

(Lugosch v. Pyramid Co. Of Onondaga; Media counsel: Michael Grygiel, McNamee, Lochner, Titus & Williams, Albany, N.Y.)SB

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