Law School Case Brief
United States v. Criden - 648 F.2d 814 (3d Cir. 1981)
The courts of the United States recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents. The right to inspect and copy, sometimes termed the right to access, antedates the Constitution. It has been justified on the ground of the public's right to know, which encompasses public documents generally, and the public's right to open courts, which has particular applicability to judicial records.
A federal district court denied the application of appellant broadcasters for permission to copy, for the purpose of rebroadcasting, videotapes admitted into evidence in the government's case against appellees public officials for bribery and other offenses that were part of the "Abscam" prosecutions. Appellants sought review. The appellate court reversed, finding that appellants had a right to inspect and copy judicial records, known as the right of access, and that when such right was buttressed by the significant interest of the public in trial events, there arose a presumption in favor of release of the evidence. The court found that the trial court accorded too little weight to this strong common law presumption of access and accorded too much weight to concerns such as the effect of publicity on jurors in case of a retrial. The court found that the appropriate remedy for the effect publicity might have on the jurors was the curative device of voir dire examination. The trial court had described portions of the videotapes as containing scurrilous and libelous statements, and the court remanded so that the trial court could determine whether any portions of the tapes merited excision.
Should the order denying the application of appellant broadcasters to copy and rebroadcast videotaped evidence used in a criminal trial of appellee public officials be reversed?
Chief among the factors favoring release was the common law right of the public to inspect and copy judicial records. The existence of such a right was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States in Warner Communications, where the Court stated: It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents. The right to inspect and copy, sometimes termed the right to access, antedated the Constitution. It has been justified on the ground of the public's right to know, which encompassed public documents generally, and the public's right to open courts, which had particular applicability to judicial records.
The criminal trial at which the tapes were played was not an ordinary criminal trial. The two defendants tried were elected public officials accused of receiving money for acts to be performed by them because of their official positions. The Abscam indictments provoked public concern and comment about the morality of public officers. The government's involvement in the conduct for which defendants were prosecuted raised sensitive issues of public policy, since the integrity of the methods used in federal law enforcement was called into question. Subsequent to the trial and the ruling on the tapes, Judge Fullam held that the conduct of the undercover agents established entrapment which entitled defendants to judgments of acquittal. The actions of the indicted elected officials, the conduct of the law enforcement agencies, and the court's decision to set aside the convictions combine to created legitimate public interest in the proceedings far beyond the usual criminal case.
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