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Newspaper wins right to see name of politician in documents

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         NINTH CIRCUIT         Secret Courts         Dec 6, 2001    

Newspaper wins right to see name of politician in documents

  • A federal appellate court determined that injury to an official’s reputation is an insufficient reason for a lower court to withhold an allegedly corrupt politician’s name from letters released to the Sacramento Bee.

The Sacramento Bee recently persuaded a federal appeals court to release the name of a California politician — suspected to be Gov. Gray Davis — accused in court documents of collaborating with a state official who pleaded guilty to racketeering.

“The press must be free to monitor the courts by access to their records,” stated the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) in a decision released Dec. 3.

Last year, the Bee ran a story citing sources that claimed Davis was the man described in court documents as arranging unethical transactions between the California Coastal Commission and his constituents.

The letters were admitted into court during hearings to reduce the jail sentence of Mark Nathanson, who pleaded guilty to racketeering during his term as coastal commissioner.

District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton provided the Bee with Nathanson’s letters in December 1999, withholding the name of the accused politician for reasons of privacy.

The Bee appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which ordered Kaplan to take into consideration “whether privacy interests alone justify the redactions.”

But Karlton did not waver, forcing the Bee to go to circuit court a second time.

“Injury to reputation is an insufficient reason ‘for repressing speech that would otherwise be free,'” Judge John T. Noonan wrote in the circuit court opinion. “The high public official has no privacy interest in freedom from accusations, baseless though they may be, that touch on his conduct in public office or in his campaign for public office.”

Nathanson’s letters detail “a number of times in which a high political figure approached Nathanson to get Nathanson’s assistance in obtaining campaign contributions from people who had received favorable action by the coastal commission,” stated the circuit court. The second letter sought favorable action by the coastal commission for “friends and supporters” of the politician.

According to court documents, the letters were submitted to the court during hearings that resulted in a shortened prison sentence for Nathanson, who pleaded guilty in 1993 to racketeering, seeking bribes and filing a false tax return while working as a California Coastline commissioner. Nathanson was sentenced to jail for four years and nine months, with a provision reducing his sentence if he cooperated.

One year after going to jail, court documents show, Nathanson filed a motion to reduce his sentence, including two letters as evidence of his willingness to provide information of value to the government. Although that motion was denied, U.S. Assistant Attorney John K. Vincent applied successfully two years later to get Nathanson’s prison sentence reduced by a year.

The Bee went to court to gain access to the letter when its federal court reporter learned of the petition and noticed that neither the original request for a sentence reduction nor the letters were included in Nathanson’s files, the paper reported in a news article Dec. 4.

The Bee went to court to gain access to those documents, and after a hearing on the matter Karlton ordered them sealed, according to the article.

(In Re: McClatchy Newspapers, Inc., v. Mark Leslie Nathanson; Media Counsel: Rex Heinke, Beverley Hills) GR

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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