Tuesday, June 08, 2004

In a case that gives new meaning to the term "secret justice," the Second Circuit has held that the press has a qualified First Amendment right to access to docket sheets of cases in the Connecticut state courts. The Connecticut state court system had, over the past 38 years, decided thousands of cases where sealing procedures prohibited court personnel from giving the public access to the court files, and, in some instances, from acknowledging the cases altogether. The plaintiffs, newspapers, found out about this practice and uncovered it in an article, which implied that, while some cases may have been legitimately sealed (juvenile records, bar grievance cases), others may have been sealed at the behest of prominent parties, who did not want litigtion in which they were involved made public.

The article had the desired effect of reform, but the newspapers wanted to find out what the Courts had been hiding in the past, and commenced this action. They sought an order, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 and 1985, requiring the Court personnel to provide them with the docket sheets to the sealed cases. The defendants argued that they lacked the power to provide the relief sought in that the files were subject to court orders and/or statutes. The district court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the action.

Although the district court had not reached the First Amendment issue, the Second Circuit found that it was "a matter of law suitable for determination by an appellate tribunal in the first instance." The Court, following estblished precedent, noted that the First Amendment secured the public's capacity to inspect certain court records. The Court stated that "the ability of the public and press to attend civil and criminal cases would be merely theoretical if the information provided by docket sheets were inaccessible. In this respect, docket sheets provide a kind of index to judicial proceedings and documents, and endow the public and press with the capacity to exercise their rights guaranteed by the First Amendment." Other circuits that had considered similar issues had also found that the First Amendment provides a right of access to docket sheets.

As to the issue of whether the plaintiffs could provide the relief sought, the Court found that the record was inadequate to make a determination. The defendants had not presented any orders or statutes that would preclude them from turning over the requested docket sheets. The Court determined that a remand on this issue was warranted.

Finally, the Court held that none of the abstention doctrines were applicable to the case.

The decision in Hartford Courant Co. v. Pellegrino can be found here.

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