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Public has right to docket sheets, appeals court finds

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Public has right to docket sheets, appeals court finds

  • A federal appeals court in New York City recognized a First Amendment right of access to docket sheets of sealed Connecticut cases.

June 9, 2004 — In a decision that could open the door to thousands of previously sealed cases in Connecticut, a federal appeals court in New York City (2nd Cir.) ruled yesterday that the public has a qualified First Amendment right to inspect docket sheets.

“[T]he ability of the public and press would to attend civil and criminal cases would be merely theoretical if the information provided by docket sheets were inaccessible,” the unanimous three-judge panel declared. “In this respect, docket sheets provide a kind of index to judicial proceedings and documents, and endow the public and press with the capacity to exercise their rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The ruling was a “huge leap forward” in the media’s efforts to gain access to cases sealed under Connecticut’s decades-long secrecy program, said Stephanie Arbrutyn, an attorney for The Hartford Courant , one of the two appellants.

“We’re thrilled that the Second Circuit recognized that there is a First Amendment right of access to these cases, which have been kept under lock and key in the Connecticut judicial system,” Arbrutyn said.

Docket sheets typically include basic information about a case, such as the names of the parties, the judge to whom it has been assigned, and a listing of the pleadings and court orders. They basically function as a table of contents to the proceeding.

The appeals court overturned a November 2003 ruling by Judge Gerard Goettel of U.S. District Court in Hartford, who had dismissed a lawsuit by the Courant and The Connecticut Law Tribune seeking information about various cases. The docket sheets concern as many as 10,000 so-called “Level 1” and “Level 2” cases that were completely sealed — for reasons that are still unclear — in Connecticut state courts.

Under the now-obsolete system, a Level 1 designation meant the case was kept entirely off the public docket, so that there was no public record of its existence. In a Level 2 case, the case number and names of the parties were disclosed but all other information was secret. The Courant reported that cases often appear to have been sealed simply to protect well-known litigants from embarrassment, such as in the divorce case of former General Electric chairman Jack Welch.

The Courant first reported the existence of the sealed cases in December 2002. That revelation led to a storm of public criticism and, in July 2003, the state’s abolition of the secrecy program. The current litigation concerns the fate of the cases that were sealed before the Level 1 and Level 2 designations were abolished.

Arbrutyn noted that yesterday’s ruling will not result in instant access to the docket sheets. The appeals court ruled that further proceedings are necessary to assess the arguments of the two named defendants — state court administrator Joseph H. Pellegrino and Supreme Court Chief Justice William J. Sullivan — who say they lack authority to reverse many of the sealing orders.

Nevertheless, the court’s ruling reinstates the lawsuit and sets the legal foundation for a court order requiring disclosure of the docket sheets, Arbrutyn said. That, in turn, could enable the news media to exercise a right of access to the underlying documents, such as briefs containing the legal arguments of the parties in a case.

“Without a docket sheet, there isn’t sufficient information for the media to make a reasoned assessment of whether to seek access,” Arburtyn noted.

The Courant and the Tribune were supported by a friend-of-the-court brief by eight media organizations, including The Associated Press, The New York Times Company, Hearst Corporation and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

(The Hartford Courant Co. v. Pellegrino; Media Counsel: Ralph G. Elliot, Tyler Cooper & Alcorn, Hartford, Conn., for The Hartford Courant Co. and American Lawyer Media, Inc. d/b/a/ The Connecticut Law Tribune; David A. Schulz, Levine Sullivan, New York for amici curiae The Associated Press, et al.) JM

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