NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CONNECTICUT · Secret Courts · Feb. 26, 2007
Judge unseals information in secret docket cases.
Feb. 26, 2007 · A judge in Connecticut has ruled that the identities of some parties to lawsuits and docket sheets of their cases that were previously sealed must be released to the public.
Superior Court Judge Robert E. Beach Jr.’s Feb. 16 order came as the result of a lawsuit brought by The Hartford Courant Company and American Lawyer Media, which sued the chief court administrator and the chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court to gain access to the files, mostly divorces, child custody matters and paternity suits.
Beach examined 40 cases individually. He unsealed the party names and docket sheets in 27 of them. In 12 more cases, he ordered the docket sheets unsealed but some information, including party names, redacted.
The judge provided a detailed explanation justifying his decision in each case.
For example, the judge found that the private interest in nondisclosure outweighed the public interest in disclosure in a case where persons connected with the case were in the federal witness protection program. In that case, the judge ruled that the docket sheet could be disclosed but only with appropriate editing.
But in a paternity case where the only apparent reasons for closure were embarrassment, the judge ordered the full docket sheet unsealed.
“Some have suggested that sealing orders may have been motivated by unseemly factors,” Beach wrote in his opinion. “Public confidence in the integrity of the judicial branch is essential in its functioning in a free society.”
Media law attorney David Schulz, representing the Courant, told the newspaper in an interview that “clearly the judge is trying to do the right thing here.”
The state judge’s ruling came at the direction of a federal court order.
The media’s lawsuit sought injunctive relief, including access to court files, which were sealed at three different levels.
According to the judge’s opinion, Level 1 sealing prohibited court personnel from acknowledging the existence of the cases and the cases did not appear on official docketing systems. Level 2 sealing allowed the name and docket number of the case to be disclosed, but prohibited access to the documents comprising the bulk of the court file. Level 3 sealing allowed access to the entire file except as to specific documents.
The media plaintiffs did not object to Level 3 sealing, but requested information regarding the cases subject to Level 1 and Level 2 sealing orders.
A federal district judge dismissed the case, arguing that the defendants lacked the authority administratively to order that judicial orders be reversed.
On appeal, a federal appeals court in New York (2nd Cir.) pointed out that there is a qualified First Amendment right of access to court documents and sent the case back to the district judge to further explore whether the docket sheets were sealed pursuant to administrative, clerical, or judicial authority.
Media organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the newspaper companies.
Once back at the district court level, the parties agreed to transfer the matter to a state Superior Court judge, who would review the 40 cases sealed at Level 1 and decide whether to unseal them.
(In re Sealing Litigation, Reference Numbers 101-140, The Hartford Courant Company v. Pellegrino; Media Counsel: David Schulz, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP, New York, for The Hartford Courant Company; Daniel Klau, Pepe & Hazard LLP, Hartford, Conn., for American Lawyer Media) — CS