Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

A federal courthouse rule that needs changing

Until last week, we thought there were only two types of court filings: those that were publicly available; and those that were sealed.

Now, thanks to an absurd rule in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, we learned of a third kind: public but only available under the court’s terms.

Our trip down the rabbit hole began after The Baltimore Sun reported on sentencing memoranda in the case of former state lawmaker Nathaniel T. Oaks, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to public corruption charges. The defense memorandum was nearly 200 pages long and included numerous testimonials from current and retired lawmakers and civic leaders arguing for a lenient sentence.

In conjunction with the sentencing memorandum, Oaks’ public defenders submitted a motion to seal a supplemental filing because it “contained confidential health information.” The motion was granted by Judge Richard D. Bennett, and those documents are inaccessible in the online case file. But although Bennett’s sealing order did not extend to the parties’ sentencing memoranda, they also were not available online.

Now, we do not fault The Baltimore Sun for obtaining non-public court documents, nor do we blame Oaks’ lawyers from wanting to keep his personal health information private. But there is no law stating sentencing memoranda should be confidential. And Oaks has been a longtime public figure whose indictment and plea deal cast a shadow over the past General Assembly session as well as the primary election to replace him last month. Even with redacted information about his health, the public has a right to be informed about his case.

So, after a Daily Record reporter was told by a courthouse clerk she was “100 percent certain the files are sealed,” we got our lawyers involved.

They determined the action was taken in accordance with a rule in the court, a rule that is “constitutionally infirm and cannot be reconciled with the public’s rights of access to judicial documents under the First Amendment and common law,” a letter to Bennett states.

Prosecutors, at the direction of Bennett, then sent us most of the documents we were seeking. But they remained unavailable online despite us being repeatedly told they “were all a matter of public record.”

Earlier this week, however, we realized we were still missing some of the letters sent in support of Oaks. This time, we were told we could see them at the public terminal at the clerk’s office. And our reporter was able to see all of the filings there – but was then told by clerks he could not print the documents, only view them at the courthouse. This appears to be an administrative rule as well.

Once again, it took our lawyers’ intervention for us to obtain the documents electronically – and, once again, we were reminded that nothing had been “unsealed” and everything was publicly available.

So, to review, it took us two trips to the courthouse and two letters from our lawyers – plus countless emails – for Daily Record reporters to see “publicly available” documents. If it took us this much time and effort to obtain what we were apparently entitled to see, what chance does a non-reporter – perhaps a former constituent of Oaks’ – have of finding these documents?

Oaks was sentenced Tuesday to three-and-a-half years in prison. As of Thursday morning, the sentencing memoranda – the documents we were told are readily available for anyone to view – remain sealed in the electronic court file.

Here’s to hoping the federal court abolishes its administrative rule before the next lawmaker is scheduled to be sentenced on corruption charges.