The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief yesterday with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the justices to accept review of a Sept. 11-related case that has been conducted in extraordinary secrecy.
The case, listed only as “M.K.B. v. Warden” in the Supreme Court, was originally withheld from the public docket entirely. Later, the case was publicly docketed, but all but two of the 65 entries are listed as “SEALED” — making it impossible for the public or news media to follow the proceedings.
In its brief, the Reporters Committee argues that the case is “perhaps the most egregious recent example of an alarming trend toward excessive secrecy in the federal courts, particularly in cases that bear even a tangential connection to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.”
The case arises from the federal government’s detention of an Algerian-born man who allegedly had contact with three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, according to a Sept. 25, 2003, report by Dan Christensen in the Miami Daily Business Review. Christensen has reported the man’s name as Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel.
Bellahouel was held for five months in federal prison in Miami. While there, he filed a legal challenge to his detention, known as a petition for writ of habeas corpus. He was later freed on $10,000 bond, but the government continues to pursue deportation charges against him.
The Reporters Committee’s brief argues that the press and public have a presumptive First Amendment right of access to the Bellahouel’s habeas corpus proceedings, and to any pleadings or other documents filed with the court by the parties.
As the brief points out, U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck of Miami never articulated findings of fact to support his sealing of documents or closure of proceedings. Nor did he provide the public or the news media with an opportunity to be heard on those issues.
The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld those practices, despite an earlier Eleventh Circuit precedent — Newman v. Braddick — which held that the public has a constitutional right of access to proceedings involving the “incarceration or release of prisoners.”
The Reporters Committee’s brief can be found at www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20031103-mkbvwarden.pdf.html