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Seventh circuit keeps police disciplinary records hidden

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  1. Court Access
Disciplinary records related to citizen complaints against Chicago police officers will not be released to the public in a lawsuit…

Disciplinary records related to citizen complaints against Chicago police officers will not be released to the public in a lawsuit brought by a reporter and local government officials, a federal appeals court ruled Nov. 10.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) overturned a 2007 decision to unseal disciplinary records of eight Chicago police officers sought by journalist Jamie Kalven and 28 alderman — elected Chicago officials who represent different wards within the city.

The records had been evidence in a lawsuit against the officers for alleged misconduct that were sealed under a protective order agreed upon by the parties in that case. The police misconduct case settled out of court but the disciplinary records never made it into the case file. Kalven and the alderman intervened in the case to unseal the records, noting the great public interest in them.

Although the district court lifted the protective order, unsealing the records and allowing either party to release them, the Seventh Circuit ruled that there was no public right of access to those documents. The unanimous panel held that because the disciplinary records were never made part of the official court file, the public did not have a right to access them.

"Here, Kalven is seeking access to discovery materials that have never been filed with the court and have never influenced the outcome of a judicial proceeding," Judge Diane S. Sykes wrote.

Kalven said he expects to ask the full Seventh Circuit to rehear the case. He said they are hoping the decision will be "reconsidered and modified" because it is "very threatening to press access."

"In denying standing to me, and by extension to other journalists in similar situations, it seriously weakens an important tool for contesting information," he said.

Additionally, the court ruled, Kalven and the alderman did not have the legal standing to get involved with the suit in the first place because the case had already settled when they asked to intervene.

"In short, Kalven has no injury to a legally protected interest and therefore no standing to support intervention," the opinion said. "Neither do the alderman; in all material respects, they are in the same position as Kalven."

The court vacated the lower ruling and dismissed the petition filed by Kalven and the aldermen.

"It’s a serious issue and setback to press access," Kalven said. He added that it is "remarkable" that the court’s 39-page decision "hardly mentioned the public interest at all. We are talking about an issue of paramount important of police misconduct and it scarcely acknowledged the public interest."