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Media ask court to reconsider access to warrant documents

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  1. Court Access
Local media groups in Illinois have asked an Illinois appellate court to reconsider its December ruling that the public has…

Local media groups in Illinois have asked an Illinois appellate court to reconsider its December ruling that the public has no presumptive right of access to court documents related to search warrants.

The request for a rehearing arises from the appeal of a trial court decision that denied the media's request to review some of the documents filed with the court in support of a murder investigation search warrant. Specifically, the trial court denied access to the affidavit filed in support of the search warrant and the inventory of the items seized pursuant to the warrant. The trial court ruled that these court-filed documents were presumptively public, but that competing interests outweighed the presumption of disclosure in the particular case.

The Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court affirmed the trial court's ruling, but on different, more far-reaching grounds. In a Dec. 8 opinion, the appellate court concluded that the public has no presumptive right of access to the search warrant documents at issue. In other words, the balancing of competing interests undertaken by the trial court was not necessary, as no public right of access was at issue.

Calling the appellate court's analysis "novel," the media companies' brief asks the appellate court to reconsider its decision. The brief asserts that the appellate court's opinion conflicts with state law, which provides that upon the filing of a document in court, the document becomes presumptively open for public access.

"In Illinois, the act of filing documents with the judiciary renders applicable the presumptive right of access," the media's brief states. The appellate court's opinion fails to follow this "consistently recognized" rule and also conflates the constitutional right of access to court documents with the statutory and common law rights of access, the media companies argue in their brief.

Esther Seitz, one of the attorneys for the media group, said the media asked the court to reconsider its decision because the opinion is at odds with state law that makes records filed in court presumptively public and sets a bad precedent. "It is important that the right of access applies to these search warrant records after the search has been executed and returned to the court because, at that point, they are clearly judicial records," Seitz said.

Rather than concluding that no right of access applied to these documents, the court should have recognized the right of access and then balanced that right against other any competing interests, Seitz said.

The appellate court has not decided whether to grant reconsideration of the appeal. If the court rehears the case, it will give the opposing parties a chance to respond.