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High court allows media to intervene in murder case to challenge seal

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    NMU         KANSAS         Secret Courts         Jun 15, 2001    

High court allows media to intervene in murder case to challenge seal

  • The ruling recognized the critical role the media provide in opening judicial proceedings to the public despite the lack of an express statutory provision.

A Kansas newspaper and television station can step in as parties to a murder trial for the limited purpose of challenging a sealing order, according to a June 13 ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court.

The Wichita Eagle and KWCH-TV, among others, sought to intervene to challenge the sealing order. The trial court refused to permit intervention because it said the rules of criminal procedure did not specifically authorize intervention by third parties. The underlying case involved the murder trials of suspects in two quadruple homicides in Wichita, Kan. The state sought to seal certain documents in that case.

The media appealed the denial of intervention to the Kansas Supreme Court, arguing that intervention must be permitted to preserve the public’s right of access to court proceedings and records. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the media.

The public’s right to intervene in such cases is well-established in most states and federal circuits, although a recent Eighth Circuit decision questions the appropriateness of permissive intervention.

In its opinion, the state Supreme Court re-affirmed a prior case which held that a trial court, when considering the sealing of a court record or the closure of a proceeding, must consider the societal interest in open proceedings and records. The court then added, “The news media, as a member of the public, should be permitted to intervene in a criminal case for the limited purpose of challenging a pretrial request, or order, to seal a records or close a proceeding in that case, even without an express statutory provision allowing such intervention.”

The court reasoned that allowing intervention would provide the trial court with the benefit of the views of a third-party well suited to represent the interest of the public: “the news media may identify, or at least be a strong proponent of the argument that there are . . . ‘reasonable alternative means’ to closure that would avoid the prejudicial effect on the defense or prosecution of the dissemination of information contained in the record or revealed during a proceeding.”

(The Wichita Eagle Beacon Co. v. Owens; Media Counsel, Bernard Rhode and Blaine Kimrey, Lathrop & Gage, Kansas City, Mo.) AG

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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