A federal judge in Tennessee sealed court filings last week with little public explanation in a criminal case involving prescription painkillers, the Associated Press reported.
The prosecution and defense in the case, U.S. v. Reimers, each filed a motion-to-keep memorandum in support of a plea agreement secret, saying that the court filings contained "sensitive information." The judge granted both requests.
According to court records that are publicly available, the court had scheduled a public plea hearing for Jan. 7, but the court record does not indicate that the hearing occurred in public. The defense's subsequently-filed motion to file under seal suggested that the hearing was instead held in the court's chambers.
"At the hearing on January 7, 2011, that was held in chambers, the parties informed the Court that their memoranda may contain sensitive information and would need to be filed under seal," the motion said. "The district court agreed that these documents could be filed under seal."
According to the AP story, U.S. District Judge Sandy Mattice gave no public explanation for holding the closed-door meeting on Jan. 7. Mattice also delayed the scheduled change of plea hearing and the sentencing hearing.
The defendant, Dr. Elizabeth Reimers of Winchester, Tenn., is charged with freely administering painkillers to patients, several of whom died of overdoses. Reimers originally pleaded not guilty, but recently changed her plea and agreed to a 70-month prison sentence.
In their motion to file under seal the memorandum to support the plea agreement, the defense said the memorandum “contains sensitive information, including identification of several patients, and medical records” that should be kept secret.
Traditionally, court documents and criminal proceedings must remain open to reporters and the public. The U.S. Supreme Court precedent says that in order to seal court documents and proceedings, a judge must ensure that such secrecy does not impinge upon the First Amendment rights of the public.
Richard L. Hollow, a partner for the law firm Hollow & Hollow in Knoxville, Tenn., said that in cases in which access to the judicial system is limited, it is important for the courts to explain the reasoning behind it.
"We know that there are very few absolutes, and the right to a public trial is not necessarily absolute. It can legitimately be modified, where you have appropriate circumstances," Hollow said. "But according to interpretation of the law, those circumstances should be extremely rare and limited. In such cases, there should be something telling us why the public does not have access."
The courts usually apply a balancing test to determine whether the need for public disclosure outweighs the stated need for confidentiality, according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's First Amendment Handbook.
Supreme Court precedent also requires lower courts to hold a hearing in which members of the public and the media can question the reasoning behind a seal order.
Mattice’s decision to seal the filings comes at a time when painkiller cases across the country have garnered attention for freedom of the press and freedom of speech issues.
In October, the Reporters Committee filed a motion to intervene and gain public access to sealed filings in a case involving a national pain relief advocate and the criminal prosecution of two Kansas doctors. The advocate, Siobhan Reynolds, faces a grand jury subpoena and is attempting to fight the court mandate, saying it violates her First Amendment rights. The Reporters Committee noted that the case also had implications for journalists called before grand juries. The high court denied the request, but released a redacted version of Reynolds’ request for review.