Thursday, January 08, 2004

Federal court has secret docket 

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports on alleged secret court cases in Miami's federal court.

A secret docketing system hiding some sensitive Miami federal court cases from public view has been exposed and is being challenged in two higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We don't have secret justice in this country," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The Washington-based journalists watchdog group is asking the appellate courts to open up two Miami federal cases it says were litigated in secret.

The group has filed briefs in the Supreme Court and in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Representing two dozen media and legal organizations, it is mounting the stiffest challenge yet to a practice legal experts say violates free speech rights and ignores established court decisions favoring open records and courtrooms.

Let's blame John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act! Right? Not so fast...

Bergonzoli was indicted in Connecticut for drug trafficking in 1995. Four years later his case, still open, was transferred to Miami. No record of it existed until Ochoa's lawyers were able to unseal parts of the file in May.

So, this has been going on at least since 1995, under the watch of Janet Reno and Bill Clinton. Nothing in the article suggests the involvement of either of them, but regardless of when this practice started, which administration(s) perpetuated it, or what justification is given for keeping entire court proceedings secret, it's just plain wrong. This is not how we do things in America.

Attorney Floyd Abrams highlights the problems of secret dockets as follows:

"Without public docket sheets, there is no way for the public to even know that a case has been brought or resolved. It's a significant infringement of the genuine public interest in knowing what is going on in its judicial system."

Exactly. All citizens have a right to know what any branch of government is doing in their name. Especially the judicial branch. There are legitimate reasons for withholding information, such as national security. But there is no excuse for keeping an entire case secret. Seal the records, impose gag orders on the participants... those things have their place. But you don't keep the very existence of a case secret. That goes against the public interest and violates the principles of open government upon which this nation was founded.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has several press releases, motions, and amicus briefs related to the secret dockets on their homepage. Scroll down--there are four documents between 12/23 and 1/6. (Will require PDF reader.)
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