In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, the Sixth Circuit decided the question of “whether the First Amendment affords the press and public a right of access to deportation hearings.” 303 F.3d 681, 694 (6th Cir. 2002). A directive from the chief immigration judge ordered closure of all deportation proceedings in “special interest” cases, generally related to terrorism, and also restricted release of information regarding the matter, including “‘confirming or denying whether such a case is on the docket or scheduled for a hearing.’” Id. at 683–84. Applying the Richmond Newspapers “experience and logic” test, the court held that there was a First Amendment presumptive right of access to deportation proceedings. Id. at 700.
On the experience prong, the court addressed “whether this inquiry requires a significantly long showing that the proceedings at issue were historically open, such as a common law tradition.” Id. The court held that “although historical context is important, a brief historical tradition might be sufficient where the beneficial effects of access to that process are overwhelming and uncontradicted.” Id. at 701. The court did caution: “‘[a] historical tradition of at least some duration is obviously necessary, … [or] nothing would separate the judicial task of constitutional interpretation from the political task of enacting laws currently deemed essential.’” Id. (quoting In re The Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 773 F.2d 1325, 1332 (D.C. Cir. 1985 (Scalia, J.)).
In regards to deportation hearings specifically, the court found that “deportation proceedings historically have been open,” pointing to federal regulations that made them presumptively open and Congressional action that closed another type of immigration proceeding. Id. at 701. The court rejected the government’s argument that these were merely administrative proceedings to which there was no common law right of access, explaining that courts must look at more than labels and should instead “look to proceedings that are similar in form and substance” when deciding the experience prong. Id. at 702. Here, the deportation hearings “‘walk, talk, and squawk’ very much like a judicial proceeding.” Id. As a result, the Court found that the experience prong supported a presumptive right of access under the First Amendment.
The court reached the same conclusion on the “logic” prong. “Public access undoubtedly enhances the quality of deportation proceedings” for many of the same reasons that supported the holding in Richmond Newspapers. Id. at 703.
In applying strict scrutiny to the presumptively open deportation proceedings, the court found that the government’s “ongoing anti-terrorism investigation certainly implicates a compelling interest,” but the closure “directive is neither narrowly tailored nor does it require particularized findings.” Id. at 705.
In reaching its holding, the court rejected the government’s argument that the Richmond Newspapers line of cases did not apply to deportation proceedings because they were administrative proceedings to which “the more deferential standard” in Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1 (1978), applied. Ashcroft, 303 F.3d at 674. In addition, the Sixth Circuit rejected the government’s argument that it could “implement any non-substantive policy infringing upon [the right of access] if it is ‘facially legitimate and bona fide.’” Id. at 686 (quoting Kleindeinst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753, 770 (1972)).