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In re application of Los Angeles Times Communications LLC to unseal court records

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  1. Court Access

Case Number: 1:21-mc-00016

Court: U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Clients: Los Angeles Times

Application to Unseal Filed: Feb. 24, 2021

Background: In February 2020, after listening to closed-door congressional briefings about the novel coronavirus, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and his wife sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock, including more than $200,000 in certain hotel chains. Once the stock market began sliding due to concerns over the worsening pandemic, Burr’s mandatory trade filings faced heavy scrutiny from the public — and from the Department of Justice, which opened a formal inquiry into his transactions.

As part of the government’s investigation, the FBI executed a search warrant on Burr’s Washington, D.C.-area home on May 13, 2020, taking custody of the senator’s cell phone. Burr stepped down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee the next day. The investigation concluded in January 2021 without charges. Yet pivotal documents related to the search warrant — and the case number associated with them — remain under seal.

On behalf of the Los Angeles Times, Reporters Committee attorneys have requested that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unseal the search warrant materials, arguing that the press and public have a constitutional and common-law right to access the records. This is especially important in this case, they added, because of the unusual nature of serving a search warrant for a sitting senator’s cell phone.

Quote: “Though the federal law enforcement investigation into Senator Burr’s stock trades around the time the coronavirus pandemic took root in the United States ended without any charges being filed, the press and the public have a persistent interest in scrutinizing the grounds for which the government sought — and obtained — a search warrant directed at a sitting United States senator, an unusual action that reportedly required approval from the highest levels of the Justice Department.”

Updates: On May 26, 2021, Chief Judge Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the Los Angeles Times’ application to unseal the court records. On June 7, 2021, the Los Angeles Times appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. On March 18, 2022, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the district court failed to properly weigh the public interest asserted by the Times, as well as the volume of information about the investigation that is already in the public domain, and remanded the matter for a fresh application of the correct legal standard. On June 17, 2022, the Justice Department released heavily redacted search warrant materials it used to obtain Sen. Burr’s cellphone as part of its investigation. On Aug. 29, 2022, however, the district court ordered the Justice Department to make public much of the material it initially attempted to redact from warrant materials associated with the government’s investigation, citing the powerful public interest in transparency. On Sept. 5, 2022, the government filed the search warrant materials with significantly fewer redactions.

Filings:

2021-02-24: Application of Los Angeles Times to unseal court records

2021-02-24: Memorandum of law in support of application to unseal court records

2021-02-24: Proposed order

2021-04-05: Motion to unseal sealed motion for leave to file document under seal

2021-09-21: Brief for petitioner-appellant

2022-03-18: D.C. Circuit opinion

2022-06-17: Search warrant materials

2022-07-07: Response of Los Angeles Times in opposition to continued sealing

2022-08-29: Memorandum opinion and order