CMLP and Cyberlaw Clinic Ask Supreme Judicial Court to Affirm Public Right of Access to Inquest Records

With the help of Harvard Law School's Cyberlaw Clinic, the Citizen Media Law Project and a coalition of New England media and advocacy organizations submitted an amicus curiae brief last week to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, seeking to ensure a public right of access to inquest materials that will allow journalists, bloggers, and other news gatherers to inform citizens on matters of public concern.

The case involves Amy Bishop, the professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama who allegedly shot and killed three of her colleagues during a faculty meeting on February 12, 2010.  During their investigation of these events, Alabama authorities noted that, in 1986, Massachusetts police had investigated Bishop's involvement in the fatal shooting of her brother, Seth Bishop, and had deemed the shooting accidental. The shooting in Huntsville sparked a new inquiry into Seth Bishop's death, and in February 2010, the Norfolk District Attorney initiated an "inquest," which is an investigative, fact-gathering procedure. Mass. G.L. c. 38, § 8.

On June 16, 2010, a grand jury in Massachusetts indicted Amy Bishop for first-degree murder. Given the widespread public interest in the case, The Boston Globe filed a motion seeking to inspect the inquest transcript and report. The Superior Court denied the motion and ordered that the inquest materials remain impounded.

Harvard's Cyberlaw Clinic drafted the brief and we were joined by Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., GateHouse Media, Inc., Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, Metro Corp. d/b/a Boston Magazine and the New England Newspaper and Press Association, Inc.  The brief states: 

This appeal involves the public right of access to the results of an inquest that triggered the arrest of Amy Bishop on charges of murder in a closely watched case that has aroused very strong emotions. It is in just such a case that the public's right to information is critically important. Such access helps to ensure more accurate fact-finding by governmental officials; allows the public to monitor the conduct of public officials; and promotes greater understanding and respect for the rule of law. As advocates for the rights of those who gather and disseminate news and information, Amici have a strong interest in ensuring that the law's protections for the right to obtain information necessary for self-government be fully enforced.

By statute, Massachusetts law states a presumption that inquest reports become public documents once the grand jury returns an indictment. See Mass. G.L. c. 38, § 10 (the "Inquest Statute"). In this case, however, the lower court applied the opposite presumption. If allowed to stand, the Superior Court's ruling will help ensure, as a practical matter, that Amici and similar news organizations and journalists will rarely, if ever, receive such documents without a court battle. News organizations struggling to survive in today's financial climate have very limited resources to mount litigation. As a result, for Amici - many of them small newspapers and individual bloggers - reversing the presumption of access to inquest reports has the practical impact of shutting the door on such records altogether. Such an outcome upends not only the Inquest Statute, but also the common law of Massachusetts.

A big thank you to the Cyberlaw Clinic for authoring the brief and to the lawyers and staff at Prince Lobel Glovsky & Tye for their assistance in filing the brief.  Clinical students David Simon and Aatif Iqbal made significant contributions to the brief.


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