A Washington, D.C. trial judge declined to explain in a hearing Wednesday why he will continue to keep under seal courtroom transcripts and records regarding an investigation into the 2010 trial of the man found guilty of murdering Chandra Levy.
District Judge Gerald Fisher also said in court that he would consider staying future proceedings until the Court of Appeals decides whether the public has the right to access records and hearings about whether a witness in the trial of Ingmar Guandique should be impeached. Because the records are under seal, it is unclear why the witness is being questioned.
News media organizations fought to access post-conviction court records and hearings in the high profile case arguing that a blanket closure of the courtroom and records violate the First Amendment. They also requested a stay on all proceedings until the issue has been addressed in an appeals court. During the trial, a coalition of news organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, appealed Fisher’s order to seal the questionnaires of jurors who convicted Guandique, who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for Levy's murder.
“So much is going on in secret here that we can only be highly concerned about First Amendment rights being given serious treatment in this courtroom,” said Patrick Carome, who is representing the news organizations.
In December and January, two court hearings with the majority of the discussions at the bench — out of earshot of the public and the press — and the transcripts from both proceedings remain sealed.
A number of news organizations, including the Reporters Committee, filed motions in district court to gain access to all post-conviction proceedings and related transcripts.
Fisher has stated that a “somewhat substantial” safety concern allows the court to close the proceedings, but did not provide further explanation. The coalition argued that the lack of specifics is not sufficient reason to completely close the proceedings. Guandique’s lawyers have also appealed the closed proceedings and transcripts.
Fisher said he has established compelling interests for why total closure is necessary but cannot discuss them because it would reveal sensitive information.
However, Carome said he couldn’t imagine why redacted portions of transcripts couldn’t be made public.
“If some level of secrecy is necessary, it must be as narrowly tailored as possible to whatever that compelling government interest is,” Carome said. “We don’t know, we really are completely in the dark, but it really seems hard to imagine at a minimum that every word that was said during those two lengthy hearings and every word in every document has to be blacked out and unavailable.”
Fisher said he instructed both parties in the case to agree on possible redactions for public viewing, but the government has not done anything because of Guandique’s pending appeal.
“You’ve asked the parties to do redactions over a month ago,” Carome said in court. “This is the First Amendment we’re talking about, it’s not some garden variety negligence case. It’s not okay to let the public’s right to know what is going on be determined by whatever cause. The government has to deal with redactions, and it’s not something the court can put off on the parties in any event.”
Court proceedings may only be closed if the judge determines that a compelling interest would be harmed if hearings were public and there are no alternatives, according to the coalition's motion.