On Wednesday, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan’s so-called “decorum order” that has required all documents to be filed under seal in the murder trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. For more than a year, Judge Gaughan has required all parties to the case to file documents in his courtroom instead of the court clerk’s office, effectively preventing the press and public from accessing them.
The state Supreme Court’s order directs that all documents and pleadings in the case now be filed in the circuit clerk’s office. Parties to the case can still seek to file documents under seal on a case-by-case basis, but they will no longer be allowed to file them under seal by default and without first filing a motion that makes specific arguments to justify such sealing.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and seven news organizations appealed to the state’s highest court last week to block the decorum order. The Reporters Committee and news organizations argued that the order was an unconstitutional violation of the public’s presumptive right of access to court records under the First Amendment.
According to the motion filed with the state’s Supreme Court, “[T]he February 2017 Decorum Order seeks to eviscerate the First Amendment. The public and press have effectively been stripped of their right to access and inspect the judicial documents filed in a criminal prosecution of high public interest. Respondent has flipped the First Amendment and common law presumptions of public access into a ‘presumption of protection,’ suppressing every court filing in this case as a matter of course. This goes far beyond what is necessary to protect the important interest of Defendant’s fair trial rights, or any other potentially compelling interests here.”
“Far too many court filings and proceedings in this case have been shielded from public view,” said Sarah Matthews, staff attorney for the Reporters Committee. “The Illinois Supreme Court’s order is an important victory for the press and public’s First Amendment right to access information about what’s happening in one of Chicago’s most high-profile criminal cases. Now, instead of having to constantly fight for documents to be unsealed, journalists will be able to report on documents as soon as they’re filed with the court and inform the public about this important case as it heads to trial.”
The state Supreme Court’s order is the latest ruling in what has been a months-long effort by the Reporters Committee and news organizations to fight for public access in the trial.
In March, the Reporters Committee and news organizations intervened in the case to argue that the court should publicly release a docket sheet and all documents filed in the case. As a result of those efforts, Judge Gaughan ordered the creation and release of a list of all documents and orders filed in the case, as well as the unsealing of more than 70 of the approximately 110 documents filed in the case to date.
In addition to denying access to records in the case, Judge Gaughan has also closed two recent hearings over the objections of the Reporters Committee and news organizations, citing his concerns for witness safety and the potential for the trial to be prejudiced if the hearings were open. The Reporters Committee and news organizations had argued that U.S. Supreme Court precedent establishes a presumption of access to pre-trial criminal proceedings and noted that the evidence at issue in the hearings supported Van Dyke’s case and therefore could not threaten to prejudice his right to a fair trial.
Judge Gaughan has indicated that he plans for the trial to start as early as this summer.
Court filings related to the case can be found on the Reporters Committee’s litigation page.
Attorney Brendan Healey of Mandell Menkes is representing the Reporters Committee and several of the other media organizations intervening in the case, including WGN Continental Broadcasting Co., WFLD Fox 32 Chicago, The Associated Press, and WLS Television. Jeffrey Colman, Gabriel Fuentes, and Patrick Cordova of Jenner & Block are representing Chicago Public Media. Natalie J. Spears of Dentons is representing the Chicago Tribune Company, and Damon Dunn of Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman & Dunn is representing Sun-Times Media.