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Judge denies ex-mistress' request to seal exhibits in John Edwards trial

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A U.S. District judge rejected a motion by Rielle Hunter, the former mistress of John Edwards, to keep certain exhibits…

A U.S. District judge rejected a motion by Rielle Hunter, the former mistress of John Edwards, to keep certain exhibits secret in the government's case against the former U.S. senator accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions during his presidential bid to hide the pairs' alleged affair and pay her expenses.

"Ms. Hunter has not established any specific grounds that justify her extremely broad request, nor has she addressed the public's right of access or given any notice of her request to limit that access," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles in the court's order. "Moreover, the Court is not inclined to rule on hypothetical circumstances that may or may not arise."

Because the motion is sealed from public view, it is not known what Hunter's lawyers had hoped to conceal, but Judge Eagles prompted the North Carolina resident to file a written objection or motion with the court "if Ms. Hunter objects to public access to an exhibit that is received into evidence and that the Court indicates in open court will be available to the public for review."

In her ruling to keep exhibits open in the Edwards trial, Judge Eagles cited the 1978 Supreme Court case Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc. in which the high court recognized "a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including court records and documents."

Generally, evidence and trial exhibits — once presented to a jury — become available to the public. But as the high Court stated this right is not absolute. While the Nixon Court acknowledged the public's general right to inspect court documents, it concluded that the ability to obtain the materials through other means tipped the scales in favor of the defendants' constitutional rights on appeal. The Court thus affirmed a lower court's ruling denying access to audio recordings — presented during the trial of several former President Nixon aids involved in the Watergate Scandal — even after the trial concluded.

Edwards, who represented North Carolina from 1999 to 2005 in the U.S. Senate, is accused of accepting excess campaign contributions and falsifying finance reports to cover up his extramarital affair with Hunter during his failed 2008 run for president.

The federal indictment alleges that during his campaign, Edwards accepted individual contributions in excess of the $2,300 limit set by the Federal Election Campaign Act. Under the Election Act, each presidential campaign committee is required to periodically file finance reports disclosing campaign expenses. Edwards is accused of filing false and misleading finance reports in order to hide his infidelity.

The indictment states that "Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by, among other things, undermining Edwards' presentation of himself as a family man."

The former senator faces six felony charges in connection with the payment of Hunter's expenses through campaign contributions. Edwards is charged with four counts of accepting and receiving illegal campaign contributions, one count of concealing illegal donations from the Federal Election Commission and one count for conspiracy to violate federal campaign finance laws for making false statements to the commission.

Edwards' trial started Monday in Greensboro, N.C.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· NM&L: Asked and Answered

· Master – Open Courts Compendium: B. The common-law presumption of access

· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Sealing the trial record