Wednesday, March 20, 2019
The Eleventh Circuit ruled in Alabama Department of Corrections v. Advance Local Media that a media outlet that intervened in a death-penalty case had a common law right to access the state's death penalty protocol. The ruling means that the state must release the protocol (with some redactions).
The case arose when a Doyle Lee Hamm, a condemned prisoner, challenged his scheduled method of execution based on his medical conditions. After one botched attempt, Hamm filed an amended complaint again challenging the protocol. Hamm and the state agreed to dismiss the claims, and the court dismissed the case. On the same day, Alabama Media Group moved to intervene and to unseal records, transcripts, and briefs discussing Alabama's protocol.
Alabama argued, among other things, that the media group didn't have a right to access the protocol, because the state never entered the protocol into the record. Instead, the state provided it to the court for in camera review. The trial court nevertheless ruled in favor of the media group, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
The court ruled that the media group had a common law right to access the protocol. It didn't matter that the state didn't enter it into the record; instead, it only mattered whether the protocol was integral to the resolution on the merits. As the court explained:
we hold that materials submitted by litigants--whether or not they are formally filed with the district court--that are "integral to the 'judicial resolution of the merits'" in any action taken by that court are subject to the common law right of access and the necessary balancing of interests that the right entails.
As to the balancing of interests, the court said that the state's interests in withholding the protocol were outweighed by the media group's interests in gaining access to it. The court noted that the state's interest in security could be accommodated by selective redacting.