Judge won’t put McDonnell filing under seal

The federal judge handling the corruption case against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) delivered a modest win for free press and judicial transparency advocates on Thursday, rejecting a request by McDonnell’s lawyers to make a filing under seal.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer wrote that McDonnell’s attorneys had failed to justify limiting “the public’s presumptive right of access” and called their request to seal the documents “so facially deficient that the public may have effectively been deprived of any ability to assess its interest in accessing the documents at issue.” He also rejected prosecutors’ request that the filing be made with some portions redacted.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged this year in a 14-count indictment that alleges that they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a Richmond-area businessman and a company he used to run, Star Scientific, in exchange for gifts and loans. They have pleaded not guilty, and a trial is scheduled for July 28.

Defense attorneys had wanted to file under seal a memo and an exhibit to help support their bid to subpoena a host of Virginia State Police records -- an effort prosecutors have resisted.

Spencer’s ruling, though, hardly seems a setback for the former governor. Even as the attorneys requested the documents to be shielded from public view, they wrote that they had no “independent interest” in doing so, but felt bound to by a protective order in the case.

The Washington Post sent a letter to Spencer earlier last week expressing concern about the McDonnells’ requests to seal some documents. The McDonnells have requested to shield other filings from public view, and Spencer has yet to rule on those requests.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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