The Cincinnati Enquirer has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to force a trial judge to unseal documents in a criminal case, claiming she did not have sufficient cause for keeping it from the public.
Enquirer attorney Jack Greiner filed the complaint — and a memorandum of law in support of it — on Sept. 27 against Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Nadine Allen. The next day, Allen scheduled a hearing in the case for 10 a.m. Friday but did not disclose why she was calling it.
In the memorandum, Greiner pointed out that the public is unable to even see the case docket, or determine the grounds for the order to seal all documents in the case, which involves a financial planner accused of taking more than $500,000 from a 70-year-old woman.
According to the complaint, an Ohio procedural rule governing public access to court records "presumes that the court may restrict public access only on a document-by-document review. [The rule] does not permit the court to issue a blanket order denying public access to all case documents."
The complaint also accuses Allen of failing to find "convincing evidence that the presumption of public access is outweighed by a higher interest."
Greiner said Allen's actions represent a trend in Ohio — various judges have sealed documents without following these proper procedural rules that took effect in July of 2009. The rules require judges to seal documents only after reviewing each document and then explaining the decision at a public hearing.
"We feel that it's important to take this to the (Ohio) Supreme Court to get some clarity," Greiner said. "Judges simply cannot issue orders to seal cases without going through evidentiary hearings."
The newspaper's challenge of another sealing order is pending before the Ohio Supreme Court in The Cincinnati Enquirer v. Dinkelacker. In that case, The Enquirer filed a complaint in the state intermediate appellate court after the Cincinnati Police Department refused to produce unredacted copies of certain public records relating to a gunfire exchange between officers and members of a motorcycle gang. The two appellate judges granted the police chief's request to seal testimony he gave in a deposition related to that case without the requisite showing, according to the complaint filed with the state high court.
"It appears that a number of judges have not complied with the new rules," Greiner said. "They have continued to seal records without going through the rules of procedure."
Although the case Allen sealed is not on the docket, The Enquirer obtained specifics of Ohio v. Morris prior to its sealing. The defendant is a financial planner accused of taking $509,637 from an elderly woman and leaving $7.01 in her bank accounts, according to The Enquirer.
Greiner wrote Allen a letter on Sept. 21, and the judge held a hearing in her chambers the following day with the assistant prosecutor and the defendant's attorney. Afterward she announced the documents would remained sealed.
"I have no idea what she did (in the meeting)," Greiner said. "There's nothing on the record that indicates what her reasoning is."
Procedurally, The Enquirer now awaits a response from the judge, after which the Ohio Supreme Court is likely to refer the case to mediation, Greiner said.