The sealing of court records and proceedings in an Ohio corruption case was not only unconstitutional, but also unnecessary to ensure defendants receive a fair trial, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed today with the Ohio Supreme Court.
A Mahoning County trial court judge sealed key court records — including bills of particular that spell out the charges and evidence to be presented at trial — in a criminal corruption trial. Judge William H. Wolff Jr. did not allow access to the documents for fear that “intense” and “tough” media coverage could jeopardize the defendants’ right to a fair trial.
The Reporters Committee brief, filed in support of The Vindicator newspaper and WFMJ-TV, argues that the documents in question are “public records that should be presumptively open to public inspection.” Emphasizing the First Amendment rights at stake, the Reporters Committee stated: “The public has an undeniable interest in monitoring the manner in which the government prosecutes those charged with crimes and the manner in which courts dispense justice. Public confidence in the criminal justice system and its outcomes depends on the public understanding and respecting how prosecutions are conducted.”
“There are other options for judges concerned about the impact of pre-trial publicity to look at before they order key public documents to be sealed, such as questioning potential jurors about their ability to be impartial,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “This case shows no compelling, overriding need to seal any of its records, and the public should not accommodate secrecy in the judicial system.”