Common Law Essay, Research Paper
In San Franciso, two of Alameda County’s six municipal courts have limited public access to criminal court records after a Legal Aid Society lawyer requested it; others are waiting an opinion from the county counsel about its constitutionality.
The question is, can the courts in Alameda County withhold criminal records from the public? Does this violate the constitution? The article says that the courts did this to protect the witnesses and the victims. However, this protection doesn’t take precedent over access to public records and the public’s right to know.
By citing the case of Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, we see that limiting criminal court records would conflict with the Constitution. The First Amendment gives the public and the press the right to gather news. Justice John Paul Stevens said, “The court unequivocally holds that an arbitrary interference with access to important information is an abridgment of the freedoms of speech and of the press protected by the First Amendment.”
The same was true in the case of United States v. Cardentier. Tapes used in the trial were ordered to be sealed for sixty days. The New York Times and the New York Daily News objected. The court, after reviewing the Richmond case saw “an emerging right of the public to know what happens in court.” The tapes had to be released.
Although I agree that there is some information that should be withheld; such as information or “discovery materials” which the lawyer had collected for a case, or records that have been sealed for a “good cause” such as “to protect the national security, privacy, or trade secrets, to safeguard an ongoing investigation, or to facilitate settlement of a troublesome law suit.” However, I don’t feel that the information withheld in Alameda courts falls into any of the above categories. Like the article says, police records, arrest records, and other information about a defendant are not available in the two courts.
Court records have always been a major outlet for information about criminal investigations, arrests, and prosecutions. Although confidentiality might be an issue, as long as the information is obtained legally, through public places that the press has access to, then the people’s interest and the right to know should have more weight than keeping the information private.