The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press commends as a good step forward in reducing court secrecy the U.S. Judicial Conference’s vote today urging federal courts to acknowledge sealed cases in their electronic dockets.
The Conference – the chief policy-making body for the federal court system – today strongly recommended all federal trial courts with electronic docketing systems clearly indicate to users that cases are sealed instead of displaying a notice reading “No such case.”
In announcing the change, Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., credited the Reporters Committee with uncovering the existence of the off-the-docket cases, which he said were unknown to many court officials.
“The Reporters Committee did a good favor for us in discovering them,” Hogan said today.
“We’re very pleased that the Judicial Conference paid close attention to our 2006 court docket investigation,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “We take the issue of secret justice very seriously, and we’re encouraged that the nation’s judicial leaders do so as well.”
Last year, a Reporters Committee investigation that appeared in the quarterly magazine, The News Media & The Law, revealed that 469 criminal cases were not docketed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., during the five years ending Dec. 31, 2005. These defendants were indicted – and often prosecuted and sentenced to prison – in complete secrecy.
When a member of the public entered the case number of one of these undocketed cases in the court’s electronic filing system, the computer screen read, “No such case.”
Shortly after learning of the undocketed cases, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., changed its filing system so that sealed cases appear on computer screens as “SEALED v. SEALED; Case is not available to the public.”
The Judicial Conference’s vote recommends that all U.S. District Courts make similar changes in their electronic dockets, so that when users search for a sealed case, it appears as “case under seal” or “SEALED v. SEALED” instead of “No such case.”
When cases are sealed, they are assigned case numbers that appear on the docket. By contrast, when cases are kept off the docket, members of the public have no way of knowing that these cases exist unless they scroll through the dockets searching for missing case numbers.