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Media request access to appellate court records and oral arguments in Moussaoui case

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Media request access to appellate court records and oral arguments in Moussaoui case

  • The government’s appeal of a Virginia district court decision will determine whether accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui will have access to a witness who allegedly coordinated the September 11 attacks.

April 11, 2003 — Today 10 media organizations challenged an order issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) that sealed court records and oral arguments of the pending appeal that will determine whether accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui may have access to Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, the alleged coordinator of the September 11 attacks and a witness Moussaoui claims will prove his innocence at trial.

Media organizations, including ABC, The Associated Press, CNN, CBS, The Hearst Corporation, NBC, The New York Times Company, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Star Tribune Company, the Tribune Company, and The Washington Post , argued that First Amendment and common law principles require open courtrooms and open judicial records even in times of war.

Applying these principles to the Moussaoui case, the media organizations argued that access to criminal trials and court records should be denied only where the court finds a “compelling interest” for closure and where closure is “narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”

“With all due respect to the government and with the greatest of sensitivity to the fact that our Nation is now at war, insistence by the Executive Branch that disclosure of a document or a proceeding would imperil the national security does not make it so,” the news organizations wrote in their motion for access.

At a minimum, closure should be limited to restrict the least amount of information possible, the media argued. “Plainly, there are legal arguments raised on this appeal that can be made available to the public, even if it is deemed necessary to seal certain factual material.”

The media offered several less drastic alternatives to complete closure, including redaction, partial sealing, and oral arguments including both public and a closed components, which should have been considered by the court before it issued the broad sealing order.

“If ever there were a criminal prosecution that has strained the abilities of the American judicial system to dispense justice dispassionately and with due process of law, this must be one. It is precisely for this reason that the presumption of openness in judicial that attaches under American law must not lightly be set aside, even in the face of legitimate national security concerns,” the media organizations concluded in their brief.

(U.S. v. Moussaoui; Media counsel: Jay Ward Brown, Levine Sullivan & Koch, Washington, D.C.) ST


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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