Concerns that federal prosecutors are routinely sealing cases and not complying with Department of Justice guidelines on openness in judicial proceedings demand immediate attention from the attorney general, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in a letter sent today to Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The controversy was prompted by a report in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which an aide to the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says that he and the judge estimate that as many as 40 percent of criminal cases in the court are sealed at the request of prosecutors.
“If the estimate attributed to Chief Judge Hogan is even remotely accurate, it raises serious doubts about whether federal prosecutors are adhering to the Justice Department’s established policy on open judicial proceedings, set forth at 28 C.F.R. § 50.9,” the Reporters Committee wrote.
That section of the Code of Federal Regulations states clearly that the federal policy is to encourage openness. It begins: “Because of the vital public interest in open judicial proceedings, the Government has a general overriding affirmative duty to oppose their closure. There is, moreover, a strong presumption against closing proceedings or portions thereof, and the Department of Justice foresees very few cases in which closure would be warranted.”
The Reporters Committee requested that the Justice Department promptly investigate whether government attorneys in the D.C. District Court are complying with the department guidelines and whether a similar practice of routinely sealing cases is occurring nationwide.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a voluntary, unincorporated association of reporters and editors that works to defend the First Amendment rights and freedom of information interests of the news media. The Reporters Committee provides representation, guidance and research in First Amendment and Freedom of Information Act litigation.
The letter to the Justice Department can be found at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20031023-ashcroft.pdf.html