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Federal judge rejects media bid for access to 10,000 Connecticut cases

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Federal judge rejects media bid for access to 10,000 Connecticut cases

  • Court says top judicial administrators, including chief justice, have no authority to undo secret designations.

Nov. 18, 2003 — In a ruling that may leave the press without access to thousands of cases in Connecticut, U.S. District Judge Gerard L. Goettel dismissed a media effort to unseal the docket sheets in cases that are still governed by the state’s now-obsolete secrecy program.

In his Nov. 11 decision, Goettel ruled that neither the chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, William J. Sullivan, nor the chief administrator of the state court system, Joseph Pellegrino, has the authority to vacate sealing orders in the challenged cases.

“If the defendants were to disclose the requested data, they would in effect be altering or reconsidering existing sealing orders previously entered by other judges,” Goettel ruled.

The decision means that approximately 10,000 cases designated as “Level 1” or “Level 2” under the replaced system will stay secret, at least pending a likely appeal. A Level 1 designation means the case is kept entirely off the public docket, so that there is no public record of its existence. In a Level 2 case, the names of the parties and the docket number are disclosed, but everything else is kept secret.

After the existence of the secret designation system was reported last December by The Connecticut Law Tribune, a rules committee of the Connecticut Superior Court recommended abolishing it. That and other reforms went into effect July 1, but the new measures do not apply to cases already pending as of that date.

The lawsuit against Sullivan and Pellegrino was brought by The Connecticut Law Tribune and The Hartford Daily Courant. They argued that the continued practice of keeping the cases secret violated the First Amendment and the Connecticut state constitution.

Ralph G. Elliot, an attorney representing the Daily Courant, said Judge Goettel’s decision to dismiss the case was based on a faulty premise.

“The court acknowledged that there is no evidence in the record that any sealing order was ever issued in any of the 10,000 cases,” said Elliot. “Nevertheless, the court proceeded on the assumption that there were sealing orders in all 10,000 cases, and that only the judge who issued the order could unseal those cases.”

Goettel’s opinion concedes that “there is ample case law regarding the public’s and the media’s rights to judicial documents in civil matters.” But he concluded that the statutes governing the powers and duties of the chief justice and chief court administrator do not empower them to disturb sealing orders entered by other judges.

Elliot points out that the media asked only to unseal the docket sheets, rather than the underlying records — “essentially, a table of contents” of those actions, as he put it. He said that without such information, the media has no remedy.

Intervention is impractical because the details needed to determine when and how to intervene are secret. Even with respect to a Level 2 case, the public has no knowledge of where the case is pending, the nature of the claims, and whether the matter is still active.

Elliot said the plaintiffs are likely to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals (2nd Cir.).

(The Hartford Courant Co. v. Pellegrino; Media Counsel: Ralph G. Elliot, Tyler Cooper & Alcorn, Hartford, Conn. for The Hartford Courant; Daniel J. Klau, Pepe & Hazard, Hartford, Conn. for The Connecticut Law Tribune) JM

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