A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled yesterday that the public has no First Amendment right to see documents filed and admitted in civil court suits until after there has been a final decision in the case.
In a 2-to-1 decision with potentially broad implications for news reporting, the panel held that the Constitution permits trial judges to seal court documents in civil cases until after the case is decided and without first making detailed inquiries into the need for confidentiality.
The opinion, written by Judge Antonin Scalia on behalf of himself and Senior Judge George E. MacKinnon, addressed narrow Constitutional issues and did not address whether traditional court rules guarantee public access to evidence during civil trials.
In their decision, Scalia and MacKinnon dismissed arguments by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which had objected to a court order sealing documents filed in a libel suit brought against The Washington Post by William Tavoulareas, then president of Mobil Oil.
"We're not real pleased. We're very disappointed," said Jane Kirtley, director of the reporters committee. "It seems to go against the concept of open court proceedings that we have cherished in this country and I think it's a dangerous position to take."
Scalia and MacKinnon held that there is no sufficient historical basis in constitutional law for allowing reporters to examine material filed in civil suits and that delays in releasing trial evidence do not harm the public interest.
In a dissent, Judge J. Skelly Wright wrote that the ruling on trial exhibits will encourage litigants in civil suits to "make broad, unsubstantiated claims of confidentiality and prevent public access to critical evidentiary exhibits until public interest in such documents has long faded."
Tavoulareas and his son Peter sued The Post over articles suggesting that the elder Tavoulareas had "set up" his son in a company that did business with Mobil.
Before the case went before a jury, Mobil asked that thousands of pages of deposition testimony and other exhibits be sealed, arguing that they contained information that might hurt the company's shipping business.
Judge Oliver T. Gasch granted the company's request on a provisional basis, but after trial found that Mobil had failed to show a need for confidentiality. But another appeals panel overruled Gasch on material not submitted as evidence, finding that 4,225 pages of confidential company documents should remain under seal because Mobil had a constitutional right to privacy. That decision was overturned by the full 11-member court of appeals, which sent the matter back to Judge Gasch in view of a recent Supreme Court decision. The matter is pending before Gasch. The reporters committee's appeal related to Gasch's appeal to unseal the trial exhibits and other records during the the trial.
Gasch dismissed a jury verdict that The Post had libeled William Tavoulareas. That decision is pending before the full appeals court.
Numerous court decisions have established a public right to see evidence in criminal trials, but the question of public access has arisen much less freuqently in civil cases.