In response to a letter from the Reporters Committee, a federal appeals court has taken a critical first step toward unsealing an opinion in a high-profile Washington, D.C. corruption case.
The appellate court treated the letter as a motion to intervene and unseal part of the record. The court ordered the parties to respond and suggest redactions to its opinion within 30 days.
The case reportedly involves Jeffrey Thompson, a campaign booster of District Mayor Vincent C. Gray. Thompson is accused of financing a shadow campaign for Gray and not abiding by related election laws.
As part of their investigation, federal authorities raided Thompson’s home and offices and seized dozens of boxes and millions of electronic records, the Post reported. Thompson is in a legal fight with the federal government over what evidence could be introduced in a potential criminal trial.
A March 5 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington (D.C. Circuit) allows prosecutors to view documents deemed appropriate by an independent “filter team.” The ruling was filed entirely under seal, with the online docket implying only that Thompson’s appeal of a lower court order had been dismissed.
The Washington Post and other news sources said they confirmed the contents of the rulings. Thompson has not been identified by name in the case’s court documents.
On March 22, the Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown wrote to the D.C. Circuit, asking the court to keep the public aware of its decision-making process and to indicate whether a public opinion would be forthcoming.
“The Reporters Committee and news organizations are concerned that an entire appellate docket has been sealed — briefs, rulings, and other documents — with virtually no information available to the public and no indication from the Court whether a process has been put in place to provide disclosure as soon as possible,” the letter said.
The appeals court’s procedure now appears to mirror what the D.C. District Court did in May of last year, when Chief Judge Royce Lamberth had the parties suggest redactions to his ruling rejecting Thomson's request to have the documents returned. After the parties did so, a version of the opinion without identifying information was posted on the district court’s website.
"This is how the process is supposed to work," said Brown. "We respect the courts' effort to protect the integrity of the criminal justice process, but at the same time the D.C. Circuit has responded to the Reporter's Committee's concerns that a better balance could be struck."
“We’re encouraged by the Court’s order, and we hope it is the first step in a process that will give due consideration to the public rights at stake,” Washington Post attorney James McLaughlin added.