“During the past five years, 469 cases in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., have been prosecuted and tried in complete secrecy, with no public knowledge even of the cases’ existence and no way for the public to challenge the secrecy,” write Kirsten B. Mitchell and Susan Burgess, reporters with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Burgess and Mitchell found the cases by “searching the court’s entire civil and criminal docket for the past five years. During the five-year period ending Dec. 30, an average of 18 percent of nearly 3,000 criminal cases were not docketed in Washington’s U.S. District Court one of 94 federal courts nationwide. Undocketed civil cases were so few 65 of more than 12,000 as to be statistically insignificant.”
The Burgess/Mitchell article said that most off-the-docket criminal cases were kept off the public docket after prosecutors asked judges to seal the cases, according to those who handle such cases.
While Justice Department guidelines recognize a strong presumption against closing criminal proceedings and outline limited reasons allowing for closure, they don’t specifically address nonpublic docketing.
Both the department’s arguments for and the judge’s approval of sealing an undocketed case are shielded from public view, making it impossible to know whether the guidelines are followed. What’s more, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington does not monitor how many requests it makes to seal cases or how many requests are approved.
(Alex Kingsbury at Nieman Watchdog)
One more step down the road.