AAN Joins Amicus Brief to Unseal Court Records

Court records are the meat and potatoes of the local accountability reporting AAN members engage in and excel at. That’s why AAN felt compelled to sign an amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the highest court in the District of Columbia.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by a family against the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). The family’s 8 month old twins were taken away from them by CFSA after one twin hit her head, leaving a bruise consistent with shaken baby syndrome. The hospital had notified CFSA, who kept the injured twin at the hospital and took the uninjured twin from the family’s home in Georgetown. The twins were placed in foster care for two weeks and the parents were put on the city’s child abuse registry. The family doesn’t actually disagree with the initial investigation but they sued the city for $ 100,000 in legal fees required to actually get the children back and to get them off the child abuse registry. They claim they also want the case to serve as a long-overdue review of the CFSA’s practices.

The city moved to seal all documents from public view, holding that the relevant DC statute requires that minor’s names be kept confidential. The Washington Post moved to intervene in the case for the purpose of unsealing some (but not all) of the documents – those which would not unduly impact any personal privacy interests. But the trial court granted summary judgment for the city – in a sealed order which did not address the motion to intervene (at least we don’t think so). The Post filed another motion to intervene, which was also ignored. It has now appealed.

Because the Post has centered its arguments on DC law, our brief gives a more nationwide view of access to court proceedings and documents. Among our main arguments are:

  • There are important public policy benefits deriving from open trials, including the facilitation of the fair administration of justice, engendering trust in the judicial system and educating the public on matters of public concern;
  • The increased importance of preserving access to court documents when a case is resolved via a summary judgment motion, where it often means that the public really doesn’t get a good idea of what is going on in such a case;
  • The fact that there is a presumptive right of access to civil proceedings that exists under the First Amendment. While the Supreme Court has never conclusively ruled that such a right exists here, as it has with regard to criminal cases, it has hinted as much and virtually all appellate courts around the country understand that such a right exists, as do several state Supreme Courts;
  • Given the sensitive issues presented in this case, the records should not be sealed; in fact, these facts demand increased openness. The plaintiffs, who have the strongest interest in protecting the rights of their children, opposed the DC Government’s motion to file documents under seal. Further, the original complaint, which contains all the detailed allegations in the case, was not filed under seal, is publicly available and has been discussed widely in the media. Finally, a family court judge has found that no child abuse occurred; and
  • But even if there were a need to protect the children here – which there is not – there is a significant public interest in favor of transparency. The public has a vested interest in knowing whether the DC CFSA acted properly or whether the family’s allegations are completely unfounded. The focus of this lawsuit is alleged misconduct by a government agency for unfounded allegations of child abuse, with an eye toward the workings of government. Simply because a case involves children or allegations of child abuse is not reason enough to close off access to a case or documents. Categorical, reflexive, blanket responses of this type are inappropriate. Our brief argues for a more measured approach that results in closure only when necessary to protect a compelling interest.

As noted in a Washington Post column about this case, the lower court’s ruling, if affirmed, would mean that virtually every case involving children’s names – certainly neglect cases – could be sealed in the District of Columbia. That’s a very bad precedent and one we would not want to see replicated elsewhere.

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