TWO RECENT cases in Virginia, one involving criminal charges in federal court and the other a civil dispute in county court, should be of interest to anyone concerned about the preservation of an open judicial process. In the first, Michael Soussoudis, a citizen of Ghana, pleaded no contest to receiving secret documents from his American lover, Sharon Marie Scranage, who was employed in the U.S. embassy in Accra. Mr. Soussoudis was sentenced to 20 years, suspended as part of an exchange deal whereby he left the United States within 24 hours. While charges were pending against him, the Ghanaian government took actions against American diplomats in that country and some Ghanaian nationals who were alleged to have cooperated with the CIA. The State Department had some difficult negotiating to do in order to arrange the exchange of Mr. Soussoudis for those charged in Ghana, and it is understandable that many of these talks had to be conducted in secret.
What is far less clear, however, is why the court had to participate in this process and why the press and the public were barred from attending two court hearings involving the criminal plea and sentencing of Mr. Soussoudis. Judge Claude Hilton's decision to hold secret hearings is especially striking since he allowed the ambassador of Ghana and three of his associates into the courtroom while American citizens and the press were kept out. Conducting criminal proceedings in secret is an extremely dangerous practice, and this newspaper has petitioned a federal appeals court for a ruling reaffirming the sanctity of public trials.
A second Virginia case also gives reason for concern. Last month, the American Kidney Fund filed suit in Fairfax County against the estate of a former employee who committed suicide in June. A companion suit was filed against her four daughters. It is alleged that the dead woman, Ellen Kay Hatch "wrongfully diverted" more than $1.4 million that belonged to the charitable organization. The parties asked that these two cases be litigated in secret. Presumably details of fund raising and bookkeeping practices of the Kidney Fund, if they became public, might be embarrassing. The wholesale sealing of all records in the proceedings is objectionable, not only because courts are public institutions available to litigants at public expense but also because this is exactly the kind of case the public needs to know about. Supporters of this charity -- not to be confused with the much larger National Kidney Foundation -- have every right to know the details of what is charged.
The very strong presumption in favor of open court proceedings is of long duration in this country. This tradition not only helps to ensure that hearings and trials will be conducted fairly, it also encourages debate and discussion of public affairs. The courts belong to the public, and litigants -- even those representing the government -- should not be allowed to make special arrangements to keep it out.