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Second Circuit Unseals Jail Conditions Settlement Compliance Reports; Public Has First Amendment Right of Access

Second Circuit Unseals Jail Conditions Settlement Compliance Reports; Public Has First Amendment Right of Access

by Mark Wilson

On August 18, 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held “that the public’s fundamental right of access to judicial documents ... was wrongly denied” when a federal district court sealed settlement compliance reports in a jail conditions lawsuit.

Following a two-year investigation into conditions at two Erie County, New York jails, the United States filed suit in September 2009 pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a et seq. The suit alleged that conditions at the jails violated the constitutional rights of prisoners “by failing (a) to protect them from harm, (b) to provide adequate mental health care or medical care, and (c) to engage in adequate suicide prevention.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.20].

The suicide prevention claims were resolved by a June 2010 partial settlement. Under the agreement, a compliance officer was appointed to report to the district court on the county’s suicide prevention efforts.

When the court refused to dismiss the remaining claims, the parties entered into a second settlement agreement in August 2011. Under that agreement, two court-appointed compliance consultants would report to the district court every six months.

After the first compliance reports were issued, the court granted Erie County’s unopposed motion to file them, and all future reports, under seal.

In June 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) moved to intervene to unseal the compliance reports. The court allowed intervention but refused to unseal the reports, holding that although they were judicial documents, they “were not within the subset of such documents entitled to a First Amendment right of access.” See: United States v. Erie County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. NY), Case No. 1:09-cv-00849-WMS-JJM; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124688.

“The notion that the public should have access to the proceedings and documents of courts is integral to our system of government,” the Second Circuit said in reversing the district court’s order. “To ensure that ours is indeed a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, it is essential that the people themselves have the ability to learn of, monitor, and respond to the actions of their representatives and their representative institutions. This principle, as it applies to courts, has a long history.”

That right “is said to predate even the Constitution itself,” the Court of Appeals continued, but “the First Amendment to the Constitution also protects the public’s right to have access to judicial documents,” and that protection “has been understood to be stronger than its common law ancestor and counterpart.”

Once a First Amendment right to judicial documents is found, those documents may be sealed only upon specific findings, made on the record, “demonstrating that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” Broad and general findings are insufficient.

Citing decisions in other cases that made correctional facility monitoring reports publicly available, the Second Circuit held “it is clear ... that ‘experience’ supports unsealing the reports in this case.” Moreover, “logic bears out this experience, since ‘public access plays a significant positive role in the functioning of the particular process in question.’”

“The District Court did not find that a First Amendment right attached, and hence did not consider whether it could be overcome,” the Court of Appeals wrote. But given the defendants’ statements at oral argument indicating that the public’s right of access could not be overcome, the Court concluded “that the County’s arguments, and the facts upon which they are premised, cannot justify even a narrowly tailored sealing.” Consequently, the district court’s refusal to unseal the compliance reports was reversed and its standing order to seal future reports was vacated. See: United States v. Erie County, 763 F.3d 235 (2d Cir. 2014).


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Related legal cases

United States v. Erie County

United States v. Erie County