Online News Site Challenges Secret Court Proceedings

Last Wednesday, the Newspaper Tree, an online news site out of El Paso, Texas, which focuses on business, politics, and culture in the region, filed a motion objecting to an El Paso federal court's sealing of plea hearings and court documents in the pre-trial phases of a large public corruption prosecution. That same day, Judge Frank Montalvo of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ordered the government to file a response by September 5. 

In May 2008, Judge Montalvo rejected a similar motion by a community activist to open the court's proceedings, ruling that the government's interest in the integrity of its ongoing investigation and in preventing witness intimidation outweighed the public's interest in access. At that time, the court released a few documents in redacted form, but refused to provide access to plea hearings (including putting the date of such hearings on the public docket or providing transcripts), plea agreements, and affidavits filed in support of warrants in the case. 

The community activist who filed the previous motion represented himself, raising the possibility that the court did not have the benefit of the best arguments in favor of access. The Newspaper Tree has engaged James C. Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project to argue its motion. I can't weigh in on the merits of the Newpaper Tree's motion yet, and the court's previous opinion takes a careful look at the competing interests (which presumably haven't changed much), but Mr. Harrington certainly frames the issue eloquently on page 1 of his brief:

As the public's "eyes and ears", the press plays a critical role in informing and engaging our nation's citizenry.  Secrecy and silence on government corruption is contrary to our nation's values and detrimental to the ability of El Paso's local governments to govern themselves.

You can find more coverage of the case at The Carnegie Legal Reporting Program @ Newhouse and at the Newspaper Tree (here and here).  We'll monitor the status of the motion and keep you posted in our database entry, Federal District Court v. Newspaper Tree.


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