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High court rejects petition to unseal PETA case

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High court rejects petition to unseal PETA case

  • The animal rights group’s petition to unseal documents in its case against a circus owner was dismissed on procedural grounds.

July 1, 2003 — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suffered a setback yesterday when the Virginia Supreme Court dismissed its petition to unseal records in the organization’s case against executives of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

PETA had asked the court to vacate an order issued by Fairfax County Circuit Judge Robert W. Woolridge that sealed all court records and prohibited the animal rights group from posting any pleadings on its Web site.

Instead of addressing the merits of the case, including the First Amendment and common law right of access to court records, the high court dismissed PETA’s petition on procedural grounds, holding a writ of mandamus — an order from a higher court to a lower court that is rarely granted — is inappropriate in the case. Such an order is not appropriate as a way of correcting discretionary acts or errors, the court held, and is not meant “as a substitute for an appeal.”

But appeal was not an option for PETA. Woolridge refused to allow PETA to appeal while the case was ongoing, said Philip J. Hirschkop, counsel for PETA. As a result, there was no remedy, he explained.

PETA’s suit against Kenneth Feld, president of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, and an associate, Richard Froemming, alleges that the two conspired to neutralize and undermine PETA through theft, misrepresentation, electronic surveillance and fraud.

While The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press took no position on the underlying merits of the case, it filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of PETA’s petition to vacate the sealing order.

“Without access to judicial records in civil proceedings, the press is denied a fundamental First Amendment right to publish information of public interest and concern,” the Reporters Committee wrote. “Regardless of whether the allegations made in civil pleadings are sustained, the press has a right to access these records to inform the public of the basis of civil matters pending before the judiciary.”

(In re People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., Counsel: Philip J. Hirschkop, Hirschkop & Associates, P.C., Alexandria, Va.) ST


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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