Despite having both parties file briefs and deliver oral arguments, the high court threw out the appeal without explaining why.
In an opinion piece for Reuters, Alison Frankel wrote, “Perhaps the Supreme Court wants to see how other Chancery Court judges interpret the new rule before it offers definitive guidance.” But David Finger, the attorney representing the reporters in this case, says a recent filing made by Al Jazeera might have influenced the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the case.
“The counsel for Al Jazeera advised the court that it was in the process of settling with AT&T and they said that this would end any right of public access,” Finger said.
In the underlying case, AT&T unexpectedly ended an agreement with Al Jazeera after the media outlet expanded its operations to America. Each side proposed heavy redactions in the case, making it difficult for the public to determine what this dispute was about.
The two parties argued that publicizing the materials, such as many of the contract terms and descriptions of the nature of the dispute, would give a competitive edge to other companies.
In response to the sealing, five reporters from news organizations, including the Associated Press, Dow Jones and Bloomberg News, collectively sued and won in October 2013.
The ruling was the first interpretation of new rules regarding the sealing of documents at the Delaware Chancery Court, which hears many large and newsworthy business disputes.
“The new rule was adopted to clarify – and narrow – the information deemed confidential in order to protect the public’s right of access to court documents,” Chancery Court Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III wrote in the opinion.
Glasscock said AT&T's and Al Jazeera's concerns about being put at an economic disadvantage do not outweigh the public interest in unsealing the information. The parties had attempted to liken the material they wanted sealed to “routinely-redacted” price terms, but vice chancellor disagreed with the comparison.
“Despite the alleged uniquely competitive nature of the cable news industry, the information that the parties want to keep confidential, such as the nature of the dispute, cannot be viewed as analogous to a price term because of the public’s specific interest in being able to access this information,” Glasscock wrote.
The Chancery Court determined that Al Jazeera and AT&T were only allowed to redact sensitive and proprietary business information. This includes sensitive information like price terms, account numbers, and the names of companies that place non-winning bids during corporate reorganizations. Glasscock’s opinion ordered the parties to file a public complaint with fewer blackouts.
After the ruling, AT&T did not pursue an appeal, but Al Jazeera did, and the Delaware Supreme Court agreed to take the case last November.
In an order today, Glasscock agreed to stay his October ruling for 10 days to give the parties time to settle their dispute out of court. But he wrote that today's order does not necessarily mean that he would agree to expunge the documents if the parties settle the case.
As for the standing decision, Finger said he doesn’t expect the matter to have precedential effect. “These cases are all unique – what is worthy of sealing in one case is unique to that case,” he said.
But Finger still classifies the dismissal as a win for journalists.
“It’s a big victory in the sense that not every claim of harm is entitled to protection,” he said.