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Open government means open courts: How the Reporters Committee is working to shine a light on the judicial system

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  1. Court Access
Earlier this month, in celebration of Sunshine Week, we turned our attention to highlighting the value of transparency and public…

Earlier this month, in celebration of Sunshine Week, we turned our attention to highlighting the value of transparency and public information to our communities, both large and small. However, year-round we must continue to remember the importance of advocating for transparency and work to protect the rights of journalists who are shining a light into the darkest corners so the people can hold government accountable.

That’s why, in addition to fighting for access to legislative and executive branch records under freedom of information laws, year-round the Reporters Committee pursues litigation in state and federal courts in a concentrated effort to improve access to information about the judicial system. Under the First Amendment and common law, the press and public have a right to access court records and proceedings, but many courts continue to shield this information from public view.

For example, just last month, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting a North Carolina newspaper’s lawsuit seeking access to records in a completely sealed civil case. The case, Doe v. Doe, involved a local businessman who reached settlements with multiple minors over sexual abuse allegations. Given the overbroad sealing in the case, the public would have had no way of knowing about the businessman’s settlements without The Fayetteville Observer’s discovery that he was party to the lawsuit.

In Connecticut, the Reporters Committee is representing a local newspaper, The Day, in a lawsuit to unseal sentencing memoranda in the case of a man convicted on sex trafficking and drug charges who received a sentence below the mandatory minimum. The case is particularly concerning because the requests to seal the records were also filed under seal, meaning the public does not know the arguments for keeping the records—which provide important information about sentencing, a core judicial function—secret.

Transparency in these cases and others is crucial to a functioning and effective criminal justice system. When the press and public are denied access to court records or barred from attending proceedings, judicial activities are cloaked in secrecy, threatening to erode trust in the judicial system.

Access to court records and proceedings, however, enables journalists to produce more complete and accurate reporting about how the courts operate and judges make decisions, empowering the public with the information it needs to provide effective oversight of and guard against overreach in the judicial system. The public has a right to information about how its institutions govern and should not have to question whether cases in its judicial system that have been kept in the shadows were litigated and decided fairly.