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Hidden docketing system keeps hundreds of cases shrouded in nation's capital

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Defendants in more than 450 criminal cases in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., have been indicted and in many…

Defendants in more than 450 criminal cases in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., have been indicted and in many cases prosecuted, tried and sentenced to jail in complete secrecy during the past five years, an investigation by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press shows.

During the five-year period ending Dec. 30, an average of 18 percent of nearly 3,000 federal criminal cases were not docketed in Washington, D.C., leaving the public in the dark about the cases’ existence and unable to challenge the secrecy. Off-the-docket cases are different from sealed cases, which are assigned case numbers that appear on the public docket.

The findings are reported in the cover story of the winter issue of the Reporters Committee’s quarterly magazine, The News Media & the Law.

The incomplete dockets raise important public policy concerns about open court proceedings, an attribute of English and American trials for centuries. U.S. Courts of Appeals the Eleventh Circuit — covering federal district courts in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and in the Second Circuit — covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont, have ruled secret docketing unconstitutional because it infringes on the right of the public and the press to access criminal proceedings.

“Over the last five years, we had a sense that criminal cases were disappearing,” said Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “But we were astonished at how many there are. What this means is that we have federal convicts sitting in prison and there is no public track record of how they got there. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.”

The Reporters Committee found the hidden cases by searching the court’s entire criminal and civil docket from Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 30, 2005. Undocketed civil cases were so few — 65 of more than 12,000 — as to be statistically insignificant. The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., is one of 94 federal trial courts nationwide.

The Reporters Committee is a nonprofit association that provides legal defense and advocacy services to journalists working in the United States. It hosts a 24-hour legal hotline for journalists, refers journalists to pro bono lawyers in all 50 states, publishes reports, a magazine and newsletter and a Web site, and manages a fellowship and internship program for young lawyers and journalists.

The current issue of The News Media & The Law can be found at: www.rcfp.org/news/mag/30-1/_contents.html