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United States v. Acosta

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  1. Court Access

Case Number: 15-548

Court: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Clients: LNP Media Group, Philadelphia Inquirer and Spotlight PA

Motion to Intervene and Unseal Filed: Feb. 16, 2021

Background: In March 2016, as she was running for reelection, Pennsylvania state Rep. Leslie Acosta pled guilty to charges stemming from her involvement in a check-cashing scheme that defrauded a mental health clinic in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. But the public did not learn about the lawmaker’s indictment and guilty plea until the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story six months later — long after the filing deadline for candidates to run against Acosta and just two months before the primary election. By that time, Acosta was running unopposed, and she later won her race.

After a bipartisan effort to remove her from office, Acosta resigned three days into her term. She was sentenced to seven months in prison. Four years after she stepped down, however, many of the documents related to her court proceedings remain sealed. These records include court notices, motions, transcripts and orders.

On behalf of LNP Media Group, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Spotlight PA, attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic filed a motion to intervene and unseal 23 of the 40 documents in Acosta’s proceedings. They argue that the coalition of Pennsylvania newspapers have a First Amendment and common law right to access the records, and that the potential harm in unsealing the court documents does not outweigh the public’s interest in accessing them.

Quote: “Two public servants embezzled money from one of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable populations. Acosta then used the sealing in this case as cover to distort the democratic process, ultimately forcing her district to hold a special election to replace her. The voters and taxpayers have strong interest in learning how the state prosecuted Acosta’s crimes and how Acosta maneuvered her reelection while under indictment. Unsealing the documents here would have a positive impact on the community and help ensure public confidence in the judicial system.”

Update: On April 19, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered the unsealing of 21 of the 23 requested documents. “The good news is that these records have been unsealed, and Pennsylvania voters and taxpayers will finally be able to learn more about how the government prosecuted a corrupt politician’s crimes,” Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, said in a Cornell press release. “The bad news is that it took a team of lawyers and law students fighting on behalf of a consortium of newspapers to ensure that documents that should be public are in fact accessible to everyone.”

Co-counsel: Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic

Filings: 

2021-02-16: Motion to intervene and unseal

2021-04-05: Government response to motion to intervene and unseal

2021-04-09: PA Newspapers’ reply brief in further support of motion to intervene and unseal

2021-04-19: Unsealing order