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Eleventh Circuit reaffirms open court standard

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Secret docketing procedures used by a federal court in Miami are unconstitutional, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th…

Secret docketing procedures used by a federal court in Miami are unconstitutional, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) has ruled, meaning federal trial courts in three states must provide written explanations when they decide that sealing documents is warranted.

The decision in U.S. v. Ochoa-Vasquez reaffirmed the public’s interest in access to criminal trials and records. Although the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida had since unsealed the dockets at issue in the drug-trafficking case, the appellate court used its authority to explicitly remind the lower court that sealed dockets unconstitutionally exclude court proceedings from public scrutiny. The opinion, written by Judge B. Avant Edenfield, a visiting U.S. district judge sitting on a three-judge appeals panel, also said that lower courts could not seal documents or case proceedings without explanation.

“At a time when courts around the country have been imposing secrecy measures on criminal cases of all types, the 11th Circuit decision is particularly welcome,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “The law in this area is crystal clear, but it has been difficult lately to get courts to follow it.”

In a friend-of-the-court brief, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had asked the court to reiterate its 1993 opinion that keeping cases off of the public docketing system is unconstitutional. It also asked the court to reject the district court’s presumption that it did not have to explain its reasons for sealing records. In its brief, the Reporters Committee said that the U.S. District Court had denied the media and the public access to highly newsworthy events — the prosecution of alleged Colombian drug traffickers in federal court — on the basis of findings that were demonstrably deficient or nonexistant.

Under the ruling, district courts in the 11th Circuit — Alabama, Florida and Georgia — that seek to seal access to court records must make specific written findings that are publicly available showing that closure is needed to preserve an important government interest and is tailored narrowly to protect that interest. Further, courts may not withhold judicial proceedings, records, or entire cases from the public docket. Docket sheets, the court explained, are an integral part of a criminal proceeding because they allow the public to locate documents and proceedings, to identify if any documents or proceedings have been sealed, and to determine the case’s status and judge’s findings.

The court, noting that open criminal proceedings have been an attribute of English and American trials for centuries, cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent that emphasize the nation’s historic distrust of secret proceedings.

Despite these findings, the court affirmed the defendant’s conviction and sentence, noting that the defendant had not shown that he did not receive a fair trial because of the secret docketing or the court’s failure to articulate its reasons for sealing documents. The Reporters Committee did not take a position on the defendant’s fair trial rights beyond the issue of an open courtroom.

The court’s opinion can be found at:

http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200314400.pdf

The Reporters Committee’s amicus brief can be found at:

https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20031223-ochoavasqu.pdf