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Oregon Supreme Court recognizes public right to view trial exhibits, but leaves to courts' discretion

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  1. Court Access
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America cannot prevent the release of court documents introduced in…

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America cannot prevent the release of court documents introduced in a child sexual abuse jury trial that resulted in a $19.4 million verdict against the organization.

However, the Oregon court also held that state courts will not always be required to release trial exhibits at the end of the proceedings. Media lawyer Charles Hinkle, who argued on behalf of a number of media organizations for the release of the evidence, believes Oregon courts should always release trial exhibits unredacted.

"In the history of Europe, there were many instances of people sending people to prison based on secret hearings and on secret evidence," Hinkle said. "This decision opens the door to that possibility."

Hinkle's clients, which included The Associated Press, The (Portland) Oregonian and The New York Times, had intervened in the lower court for release of the evidence. The records sought are confidential files kept by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) called "Ineligible Volunteer Files" that contain information related to alleged pedophiles.

"While we respect the court, we are still concerned that the release of two decades’ worth of confidential files into public view, even with the redactions indicated, may still negatively impact victims’ privacy and have a chilling effect on the reporting of abuse," said Deron Smith, director of public relations for the BSA.

Trial exhibits and evidence, once presented to the jury, generally are public, absent exceptional circumstances in which the judge may seal certain pieces of evidence.

The Oregon trial court ordered the records released with the names of those who reported sexual abuse redacted. The BSA appealed the decision, arguing that the victims' privacy rights outweighed the right of public access to judicial proceedings and records. The Supreme Court disagreed.

"[W]e find nothing . . . and BSA points to nothing — that prohibits the trial court from releasing the ineligible volunteer files," according to the court.

In Oregon, First Amendment access rights are strengthened by a state constitutional provision stating that "[n]o court shall be secret, but justice shall be administered, openly and without purchase, completely without delay."

However, Oregon still recognizes that some judicial processes — such as jury deliberations — may remain secret where courts conclude this result was traditionally expected. The Oregon Supreme Court examined its case history, which has found that the access right is anchored in the common law, and concluded that a trial court has the discretion to decide whether to release jury exhibits. Under the common law, courts apply a more relaxed standard when evaluating requests to seal judicial documents.

"The constitutional mandate for 'the open and visible administration of justice' . . . does not entitle the public to inspect every trial exhibit at the end of a trial," the court ruled.

Though disappointed with the court's decision to not offer unqualified access to trial exhibits, Hinkle agreed that some of the decision's language is encouraging. The court added in a footnote that it does not intend to "encourage trial courts generally to refuse access to trial exhibits at the end of a trial." Hinkle also said that in practical terms, the decision may not significantly limit access to trial exhibits.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Sealing the trial record