Friday, October 18, 2013

Newsday wins (in part) challenge in closed courtroom fight

This case arises from an allegation that the Nassau County police had negligently contributed to a stabbing death after the victim's mother had obtained orders of protection on her child's behalf. The killer stalked and menaced the victim. Plaintiff claimed the police department's lax supervision led to her daughter's death. The case settled for more than $7 million, and the dispute then centered on the newspaper's efforts to gain access to certain files, which brought this case to the Court of Appeals.

The case is Newsday v. County of Nassau, decided on September 23. While the case was in litigation, the plaintiff wanted an internal affairs report, totaling 712 pages, into the episode. Newsday joined in the effort to obtain the report. The magistrate judge said the report could not be released to the public. During the settlement process, the Chairman of the County Legislature, Schmitt, spoke publicly about the report and "appeared to reveal information contained in the Report." The district court then took up contempt proceedings against Schmitt. The trial court held that hearing in a closed courtroom, but the courtroom reopened after Schmitt testified. The courtroom closed again when someone else testified about the contents of the report.

The First Amendment values open courtrooms. The Court of Appeals (Lynch, Lohier and Carney) says for the first time that civil contempt proceedings implicate First Amendment values. The courtroom should have been opened for lack of any sufficient justification to close it. "No portion of the hearing transcript reveals information that is sufficiently confidential that its disclosure would impair in any material way the performance of Article III [judicial] functions. The portions of the transcript that remain redacted after Judge Spatt's order reveal only information about the date of the Report, the number of police officers mentioned in it, and how many of those officers were female. None of these bits of information raises significant confidentiality concerns that would in themselves warrant sealing the courtroom or the transcript."
The full hearing transcript must be released.

But what about the report? Newsday wants it. We resolve that on a case-by-case basis. Newsday doesn't get the report. The substance of the report was not significantly relied upon during the contempt hearing, and it was not entered into evidence. It was only used during the hearing to refresh a witness's recollection. So it was not the kind of judicial document that needs to be made public.The report remains under wraps.

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