Access to courts

Virginia Broadcasting Corp. v. Commonwealth

Virginia Supreme Court rules trial court did not err in refusing TV station's request to have cameras present during the sentencing phase of convicted murder defendant George Huguely.

The court attempted to reconcile two seemingly contradictory phrases within the statute and while setting forth the specific procedure to be used in the future, acknowledged that it is not the way things have been done practically speaking.

Daily Press v. Commonwealth

Virginia Supreme Court rules that Newport News judge wrongly sealed trial exhibits. Big win for the Daily Press, and strong statements from Justice William Mims on the role of the press in being a surrogate for the public's right to know.

Media General Operations Inc. v. Buchanan (4th Cir. on access to courts)

Several media companies joined forces to request a judicial order that would unseal affidavits supporting search warrants related to U.S. antiterrorist efforts. They also wanted the district court to maintain a public docket of search warrant proceedings. The 4th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that denied those requests. Although the press has a qualified common-law right to see judicial documents, that right is not as strong as a First Amendment right, and can be overridden at a judge’s discretion. The magistrate judge had ruled within her discretion that unsealing the affidavits would hamper an ongoing investigation, and that the government’s reasons for secrecy were compelling. Furthermore, the press and public have no right to advance notice of a request to seal such records. Instead, journalists and other citizens may object after the fact, when they see the public record of a sealing order.

Virginia Department of State Police v. Washington Post (4th Cir. on access to courts)

The Virginia police objected unsuccessfully to the unsealing of records related to Earl Washington, Jr., who was wrongly sentenced to death for rape and murder. After DNA evidence led to a pardon for Washington, media organizations asked for police documents relating to the initial investigation, which were subpoenaed in a civil suit Washington brought after his release. The district court found that 14 of these documents deserved First Amendment status, rather than only qualified common-law protection, and ordered their release. The 4th Circuit agreed on ten of those documents, but for four others, ruled that the district court needed to further explain its decision.

U.S. v. Moussaoui (4th Cir. on access to court records)

Here, a group of media companies asked to intervene in the trial of accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. They sought access to portions of the record and of the pleadings and motions made by the government. The 4th Circuit agreed with their contention that sealing off all such records was unnecessarily restrictive, and agreed to provide access to the records after first redacting classified information. Judicial documents receive First Amendment status when (1) the place and process have historically been open to the press and general public and (2) public access plays a significant positive role in the functioning of the particular process in question. Even First Amendment rights can be curtailed, though, in cases of compelling governmental interest -- and the national security concerns here met that standard.

Globe Newspaper Company v. Commonwealth

Newspapers asked to obtain DNA evidence from a criminal trial and subject it to retesting under modern methods. The Court affirmed a lower court’s decision to deny that request. The right of access to the courts is not so broadly defined under the United States or Virginia Constitutions. Furthermore, the DNA evidence was not a "public record" under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Bell v. Jarvis (4th Cir. on public trials)

A man convicted of sexually abusing his step-granddaughter objected when the public and press were removed from the courtroom while she testified. On direct appeal, his lawyer failed to make a 6th Amendment claim to a public trial. The state courts summarily rejected petitioner's state habeas claim that failure to pursue the Sixth Amendment violation on appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The federal district court likewise rejected the claim and petitioner appealed. The court affirmed, finding that the underlying circumstances of the case sufficiently indicated an overriding, compelling interest in protecting a child victim from the embarrassment and trauma, that the closure was narrowly tailored to protect the compelling interest, and that the state court did not unreasonably reject petitioner's Sixth Amendment claims on the basis of an improper denial of a public trial.

Hertz v. Times-World Corp.

The Bedford County Circuit Court granted writs of mandamus to two newspapers, ordering that transcripts from several criminal hearings be made public. Two of the hearings involved juveniles and two involved adults accused of sexual crimes, in which numerous juvenile witnesses were required to testify. The Court reversed those writs of mandamus. The newspapers should have pursued their proper legal remedy, which was to intervene in order to have their objections heard.

Shenandoah Publishing House Inc. v. Fanning (Va. Supreme Court on access to courts)

A publisher intervened to challenge a Winchester Circuit Court decision which entered several protective orders in a wrongful death action. Among the records sealed were those concerning a compromise settlement between the estate of the deceased and the defendant corporations. The Court held that the trial court had struck the wrong balance between the interests of the parties involved and the interest of the public. A rebuttable presumption of public access to judicial records applies in civil proceedings. To overcome that presumption, the moving party must establish an interest so compelling that it could be protected reasonably only by a protective order. Any such order must be drafted in the manner least restrictive of the public's interest. The Court reversed the order that sealed judicial records in the case and remanded for a hearing on whether the records should remain sealed. The public had a societal interest in learning whether compromise settlements in a wrongful death action were equitable and whether the courts were acting properly. However, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to seal the pre-trial information collected during discovery. It was not a matter of public record, and the publisher had no right of access.

Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Commonwealth (Va. Supreme Court on access to courts)

In consolidated cases, several newspapers challenged trial court orders that closed to the public pretrial suppression hearings in three criminal prosecutions. The trial courts had overruled all objections by the newspapers. The Court reversed and vacated the trial court orders. It is unconstitutional to close pretrial hearings without an 'overriding interest articulated in findings,' and those findings should have been aired in a hearing on the merits. In addition, motions to close a hearing should be made in writing and filed with the trial court before the day of the hearing, and the public should be given reasonable notice.
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