Court of Appeals ruling a victory for open government

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The Founders were clear about many aspects of the government they were creating, and especially this core value: that government belongs to the people.

It follows, then, that government must be transparent, open, visible to all citizens. It is a government of the people, not of an aristocracy, a monarchy or any other privileged rank. Every citizen has the right to know what government is doing and to see it at work. There need to be some exceptions to that, like matters of national security. But the Founders, and the caretakers of our government ever since, have been clear that those exceptions must be rare.

A three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals reaffirmed last week that government openness is essential to our criminal justice system as well, and that attempts to impose unwarranted secrecy won’t be tolerated. The ruling came in a case involving Fayetteville businessman Mike Lallier, in which several minors alleged sexual abuse. The case was settled before it went to trial and the parties involved asked the judge to permanently seal the case to protect the identities of the minors.

Superior Court Judge William Pittman went several steps beyond what is normally done to protect identities: He sealed the names of all the parties — including Lallier — as well as the identity of the lawyers and the details of the settlement. And then he even sealed his own order. The Fayetteville Observer challenged the sealing, and was joined in the legal action by other North Carolina media organizations.

The Appeals Court judges were unanimous in ruling the extreme sealing order was legal overkill. “This level of protection from public access is unprecedented in North Carolina and has occurred in only very few cases throughout the United States,” Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud wrote.

The extraordinary legal measures were hardly needed. News organizations, including the Observer, seldom use the names of sexual abuse victims, and then only in extraordinary circumstances, such as when the victim chooses to speak out publicly. In the case of minors, media take extra measures to protect young victims’ identity, as do the courts. But it is routine for decisions involving minors to be made public with the victims’ names redacted and the information written in a way that would preclude the victims being identified in any way.

The Court of Appeals sent the case back to Superior Court and ordered it to unseal the names of the defendants, the lawyers and the guardians ad litem for the juveniles. The appeals ruling also specified that pseudonyms must be used for juvenile plaintiffs, as well as any other measures that will keep them from being identified.

First Amendment lawyer Hugh Stevens, who was involved in the appeal, says it will guide future efforts to impose secrecy on court proceedings. Open courts, he said, are essential in this country.

“The public cannot have confidence in a system of justice if they don’t know how justice is being administered,” he said. “And of course, secrecy is also a first step toward corruption. If a judge can be bought or a judge can be prejudiced by something, the best way to conceal that is to seal, is to close the proceeding.”

The Court of Appeals just took a strong stand against secrecy, and we’re all better off for it. While the decision can be appealed to the state Supreme Court, the strength of the appeals ruling gives us a strong hint of how our top jurists would likely rule.

We all benefit when the courts support open government, and we all won with this ruling.