Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo
Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo (Fortunate4now/Wiki)

Court-mandated reports about Erie County’s compliance with a federal directive to improve health and safety conditions in its suicide-plagued jails have been ordered unsealed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“Neither experience nor logic” supports a 2011 order by Western District Judge William Skretny (See Profile) sealing the reports in a case where “every aspect” has otherwise been public, the circuit decided unanimously in United States of America v. Erie County, New York, 13-3653-cv on Monday.

“The United States Department of Justice is a public agency, which brought a claim before a public court, the District Court for the Western District of New York, arguing that a public government, Erie County, failed to meet constitutional requirements in operating two public institutions, the Erie County correctional facilities,” Judge Guido Calabresi (See Profile) wrote.

“Critically,” Calabresi added, “the public court retains jurisdiction over the dispute, and indeed may be moved, or move itself, to reinstitute civil proceedings” based on the progress seen in jail conditions in the compliance reports.

Access “enables the public to understand, monitor, and respond to the progress made towards altering what the Department of Justice, as enforcer of the nation’s laws, alleged were unconstitutional conditions in Erie County correctional facilities,” Calabresi wrote in a decision joined by Judges Barrington Parker (See Profile) and Gerard Lynch (See Profile).

The Justice Department in 2009 brought suit against the county after a two-year investigation. The government alleged that conditions at the county’s jails violated prisoners’ Eighth and Fourteenth amendment rights. Most troubling, it said, were five suicides at the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo between 2005 and 2010.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which intervened on behalf of the public to argue for unsealing the reports, said nine inmates have committed suicide in county jails since 2003 and at least 15 others have attempted to do so.

The federal suit also said health conditions were unconstitutionally substandard at the county’s Correctional Facility in Alden.

The county agreed to a settlement in 2011, which called for doctors to file reports with the Justice Department and Skretny on health and mental health conditions at the two county facilities every six months.

Skretny sealed the compliance reports at the same time he approved the settlement. In 2013, he denied a motion from the NYCLU that the reports be unsealed, ruling that keeping the findings out of the public eye would encourage give-and-take over making improvements in the health care available to inmates.

“Confidentiality has allowed personnel to readily communicate perceived inadequacies,” Skretny wrote at the time. “This in turn has allowed the reporting, compliance and improvement process to be as productive as possible, and unsealing would have a chilling effect on progress.”

The circuit, however, said Skretny’s order threatens the idea that public access to court proceedings and documents is “integral” to democracy.

“To ensure that ours is indeed a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, it is essential that the people themselves have the ability to learn of, monitor, and respond to the actions of their representatives and their representative institutions,” Calabresi wrote.

He cited NYCLU’s argument that compliance reports in settlements over unsafe jail conditions elsewhere in the country have not been sealed, including reports on conditions in facilities in Cook County, Ill., Fulton County, Ga., and California.

“In light of these precedents making available the reports of monitors in institutional-changing litigation and settlements, and especially those involving settlement agreements such as the one here, it is clear to us that ‘experience’ supports unsealing the reports in this case,” Calabresi wrote.

While a common-law right of access is generally recognized for court documents and would weigh in favor of unsealing the Erie County reports, the even-stronger First Amendment protection of the public’s right to access to judicial documents is in force here, Calabresi said.

The First Amendment analysis “does not countenance” the county’s position to keep the reports sealed, he added. “Allowing public access to the documents that inform judicial decisions reminds judges, in the exercise of their power, of the sovereign body which authorizes that power.”

The county argued that the reports should be sealed so that the confidentiality and privacy concerns of negotiators would carry over to implementation.

The court said Skretny may redact portions of the reports if they contain information that may identify individuals or violate other privacy concerns.

The Justice Department, which agreed to sealing in 2011, did not take a position on the question before the circuit.

“We commend the court’s decision to let the sun shine on this longstanding controversy,” said Alexis Karton, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “If the conditions in the jails have improved as they should have, the county has nothing to hide.”

Assistant County Attorney Michelle Parker argued for the county.

“We are going to analyze the decision and weigh our options with respect to what course of action to take, if any,” county Attorney Michael Siragusa said Monday.

Assistant Attorney General Erin Aslan represented the Justice Department.