Broadcasters have won a victory in the fight over access to court records.
An Ohio Appeals court has ruled that a lower court judge was wrong to have sealed all the pleadings in a case before it, denying access to WHIO-TV Dayton, Ohio, and other news organizations.
The station and the Dayton Daily News had asked the appeals court to reverse a June 11 decision by a lower court judge that the information they sought in their reporting on a case of alleged corporate misconduct and discrimination at a local law firm were not public records.
The judge had sealed all motions, pleadings, and case filings, and all future pleadings as well. That was extremely troubling precedent to the station and to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which filed a brief in support of WHIO. The judge also pulled exhibits, arguing they were unnecessary.
The appeals court held that the pleadings were clearly public records, though some of the supporting documents may meet exemptions for attorney/client privilege or trade secrets and thus still be kept from the media. "We fought this one on principle," said News Director Julie Weindel, "to establish case law that the pleadings are public records."
RTNDA argued that the moves were a clear violation of public access to government information, which can only be limited in "the narrowest of circumstances." The judge had explained no "overarching reason for the secrecy," said RTNDA. "Judge Davis’ order prevents the press and the public from fully understanding the legal issues and circumstances surrounding this case," said RTNDA, "and prevents publication of the very allegations brought in this action."