Calling their conduct “constitutionally abhorrent,” a federal judge recently chided government prosecutors for working in secret to keep millions of dollars in cash and assets seized from a Las Vegas gambler and his family in a decadelong bookmaking investigation.
In his 31-page opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach cast light on the little-known court process that allowed the government to file civil forfeiture actions against Glen Cobb, his 82-year-old parents and his stepdaughter under “super seal” with no notice to anyone — not even the family it targeted.
Government documents filed under super seal, a procedure overseen by the federal clerk’s office, are stored in the court’s vault and not loaded into the electronic case management system. The documents remain secret from the public and opposing parties.
Ferenbach said prosecutors sought a level of secrecy normally reserved for cases that threaten public safety or national security.
“This is unacceptable,” Ferenbach wrote in court papers only recently made public. “Relying on various sealed and super-sealed filings, the government asks the court to rule against private citizens, allow the deprivation of their property and deny them a process to redress possible violations of their constitutional rights through a secret government action that provides no notice or opportunity to be heard.
“Saying that this would offend the Constitution is an understatement. It is constitutionally abhorrent.”
Between them, the IRS and Secret Service attempted to secretly seize more than $13 million from the family under the civil asset forfeiture law.
[Gregg] Leslie, of the Reporters Committee, said his watchdog organization first noticed super sealing in federal courts around the country about a decade ago, but thought it was cleaned up in 2009, when the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy arm of the courts, clarified rules for sealing cases.
“We thought the worst offenses were taken care of,” Leslie said.
I guess that’s the nature of secret proceedings. You don’t know that they’re happening. The only way to prevent this sort of thing is to impose professional sanctions serious enough to serve as a deterrent when we discover that it is happening. Unfortunately, I’d be pretty surprised if we see anything like that.