Monday, August 18, 2014
The Second Circuit ruled today in U.S. v. Erie County, New York that a lower court's order sealing compliance reports on the treatment of prisoners in Erie County violated the First Amendment. The ruling means that intervenor New York Civil Liberties Union will have access to the compliance reports.
This First Amendment dispute arose out of an earlier case brought by the United States against Erie County, New York, over the County's treatment of its prisoners. In particular, the government alleged that Erie County failed to protect inmates from harm, failed to provide them adequate mental health care or medical care, and failed to engage in adequate suicide prevention.
The district court approved a settlement in that earlier case that included the appointment of compliance consultants. Pursuant to the settlement, the consultants would file written reports with the court every six months on the County's progress, or not, in remedying the issues that led to the suit and settlement. The court dismissed the suit but retained jurisdiction until the terms of the settlement were fulfilled. The settlement agreement allowed either party to move to reopen the case at any time ("should issues requring [the] Court's intervention arise"), and either party could move for relief, or the court could issue relief itself. The County moved, and the court ordered, that the reports be sealed.
The NYCLU moved to intervene and unseal the compliance reports. The district court granted the motion to intervene, but denied the motion to unseal the reports, ruling that they were akin to settlement negotiation documents and therefore not subject to the First Amendment right of access to judicial documents. The NYCLU appealed.
The Second Circuit reversed and ruled that the reports were covered by the First Amendment right of access. The court held that both experience and logic suggest that the reports ought to be available to the public, and that the County's only reason for maintaining the seal--that they are part of a settlement agreement--didn't have any relevance here, because, after all, the case already settled.
Here's the court:
Erie County wishes to keep the reports which measure its progress, or regress, under seal and, therefore, out of public view. Yet every aspect of this litigation is public. The United States Department of Justice is a public agency, which brought a claim before a public court . . . arguing that a public government, Erie County, failed to meet constitutional requirements in operating two public institutions, the Erie County correctional facilities. And, critically, although a settlement is now in place, the public court retains jurisdiction over the dispute, and indeed may be moved, or move itself, to reinstate civil proceedings. In a case where every aspect and angle is public, Erie County seeks, nonetheless, to keep the compliance reports under the darkness of a seal. But the First Amendment does not countenance Erie County's position. Neither experience nor logic supports sealing the documents, and the District Court erred in concluding otherwise.