The Ohio Supreme Court ordered a judge to release all records sealed during the criminal prosecutions of several Mahoning County officials and business owners. The state high court also prohibited the judge from issuing further orders sealing records in the high-profile criminal-conspiracy case.
“We decide this case based on the Rules of Superintendence, which provide for public access to court records,” according to the opinion issued Wednesday.
The high court found that the public interest in the materials outweighs the privacy interests of the defendants in the now-dismissed case. Furthermore, the court held that other justifications for maintaining the secrecy of the records fail because they are inconsistent with state court rules.
The records dispute began in November 2010, visiting Judge William H. Wolff Jr., issued sealing orders and implemented procedures withholding from public access some pre-trial filings in the criminal case. Wolff said he feared publicly disclosing the court records would result in an unfair trial and cited “significant media coverage” as the basis for this decision.
The (Youngstown) Vindicator and WFMJ-TV in Ohio asked Wolff to lift those orders. Wolff agreed to release some records, but he declined to unseal others, including bills of particulars that outlined the state’s case in more detail. Wolff also continued to require the parties to submit various briefs under seal.
In January 2011, The Vindicator and WFMJ asked the Ohio Supreme Court to overturn that sealing practice and release the sealed records. The following May, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the news media’s position.
While the sealing order was being challenged in the high court, Judge Wolff dismissed the criminal cases. The Vindicator then modified its request with the high court to include a sealed six-page factual discussion in the state’s memorandum in opposition to the defendants' joint motion to dismiss.
In defense of his sealing decisions, Judge Wolff tried to convince the state Supreme Court that neither the bill of particulars nor the factual portion of the state’s memo was subject to public access because he did not use the materials when making decisions in the cases.
The high court disagreed, holding “there is no requirement under the Superintendence Rules that a record or document must be used by the court in a decision to be entitled to the presumption of public access specified in” court rules.
Judge Wolff also claimed that the sealed records were exempt from public disclosure as discovery materials or work product, citing the Ohio Supreme Court decision, State ex rel. WHIO-TV-7 v. Lowe, in which media outlets sought access to records in a 1995 murder prosecution.
Again, the high court disagreed and found the sealed records were not “disclosed to the defendant[s] for discovery purposes pursuant to [court rules] and unlike the discovery materials at issue in Lowe, these records were submitted to and filed with the court.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer attorney Jack Greiner, who has challenged sealing orders in the Ohio Supreme Court in the past, said the decision is an “accurate reading of the Rules of Superintendence.”
“This may be the first case from the Ohio Supreme Court that really addresses the Rules of Superintendence that were amended in July 2009,” he said. “The need for transparency with court documents is reflected in their decision.”
Greiner said the decision reaffirms that only the Rules of Superintendence and the U.S. Constitution govern access to court records in Ohio. Because the court based its ruling solely on the court rules, it declined to address the First Amendment right of access to court proceedings and records.
“There has been confusion in the past about the Ohio Public Records Act and the Rules of Superintendence,” he said. “The decision has made it very clear that the Ohio Public Records Act does not apply to court records.”
Greiner said he hopes this decision will influence future sealing orders.
“Hopefully courts will realize that if they want to seal records they absolutely have to follow the Rules of Superintendence,” he said. “The decision reiterates that the sealing of records is very much a last resort and can only be done when there is a strong evidentiary basis for it.”