FROM BARBARA W. WALL: LEGAL WATCH
COURT MAY NOT POSTPONE RULING ON ACCESS TO SUBMITTED DOCUMENTS
A court may not postpone deciding whether documents submitted in connection with a request to dismiss a case should be open to the public, a federal appeals court recently said. (Lugosch v. Congel, Jan. 10, 2006.) The trial judge in the case had refused to rule on a request for public access until after it decided whether the case should be dismissed. This decision strongly reaffirms that when the public has a right of access to judicial records, that right is for immediate access.
In 2000, a group of businessmen sued some of their business partners who operate a group of shopping malls. The plaintiffs claim that their partners defrauded them by shifting millions of dollars in profits from malls they owned together to malls in which the plaintiffs had no stake.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in May 2004, asking the court to dismiss the case without a trial. Attached were 4,000 pages of documents, but they were sealed. The plaintiffs' response also included 15 volumes of sealed documents.
Many courts have recognized a presumptive right of access to court records in civil cases. That right can only be overcome if sealing is necessary to prevent serious harm and is limited to the minimum necessary to avoid such harm. However, not every document filed with a court is considered a "judicial record" for which there is a right of access. Some courts have ruled that records not relevant to a decision need not always be open to the public.
The Syracuse Post-Standard and the Albany Times Union asked the trial court to unseal the documents in June 2004. The court, however, did not rule until a year later. And when it did, the court decided to further postpone the newspapers' motion until after it ruled on the motion for summary judgment.
According to the trial court, it could not determine whether the documents were judicial records for which there is a presumptive right of access until after it ruled on the motion for summary judgment. Only then would it be able to know which, if any, of the documents were relevant to its decision. Nor could it determine if any right of access was overcome before deciding that question.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, however, disagreed.
The appeals court first concluded that the public has a presumptive right of access to the records. While merely filing a document does not make it a judicial record, it said, all documents submitted in connection with a motion for summary judgment are.
Moreover, this presumptive right is for immediate public access to the documents, the court emphasized. The trial court effectively denied this right by postponing a decision, which blocked the benefits of public access to judicial records, it said. "The public cannot properly monitor the work of the courts with long delays in adjudication based on secret documents."
The appeals court did not order the documents released because the trial court had not determined whether the right of access was overcome in this case. However, it ordered the trial court to do so, and to "make its findings quickly."
Complicated cases often drag on for years. If the public is denied access to court documents until key issues are finally decided in these cases, interest may wane and oversight of the judicial system may be stymied. This case is a strongly worded declaration that the First Amendment and the common law do not allow such delays to undercut public access to court records.