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Reporters Committee urges Eleventh Circuit to end secret dockets

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals in…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals in Miami (11th Cir.) to declare unconstitutional the practice of maintaining a “secret docket” in which the very existence of certain cases is hidden from public view.

The case, United States v. Fabio Ochoa-Vasquez, involves the federal government’s prosecution of dozens of alleged Colombian drug traffickers under a series of indictments known as “Operation Millennium.” According to partially unsealed court files and media coverage, some proceedings against the Operation Millennium defendants in the U.S. District Court in Miami have been conducted on a secret docket, while others are publicly docketed but remain largely sealed.

The Reporters Committee’s brief argues that such practices violate the First Amendment. “Collectively, the repeated pattern of secrecy in the proceedings below paints a picture of a court that conducts its business with a casual disregard for the public’s First Amendment right of access to criminal judicial proceedings,” the brief contends. The brief urges the appeals court to reaffirm its ruling in United States v. Valenti, a 1993 case in which the court struck down a nonpublic docket maintained by the U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla.

The Ochoa case is part of a larger controversy involving secret proceedings in the Eleventh Circuit. Last week, the Reporters Committee filed a motion to intervene in another secret case from that circuit, M.K.B. v. Warden, which is before the U.S. Supreme Court on a petition for review.

The Ochoa amicus brief is available at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20031223-ochoavasqu.pdf

More information on the M.K.B. motion is available at: https://www.rcfp.org/news/releases/view.php?2004_01_02_mkbvward.txt