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Connecticut’s top judicial administrators lack the statutory power to release party names or docket sheets of the super-secret, so-called “Level 1″ cases that have brought the court system a barrage of criticism over the past year, ruled U.S. District Judge Gerard L. Goettel. In a decision released Nov. 11, Goettel dismissed the civil rights case brought by The Connecticut Law Tribune and The Hartford Courant against Chief Justice William J. Sullivan and Chief Court Administrator Joseph H. Pellegrino, on grounds that neither of the state statutes listing their official job duties “provides for either defendant to vacate sealing orders.” The decision applies to several dozen Level 1 cases that court officials say are still pending, as well as the roughly 10,000 “Level 2″ sealed cases, in which docket numbers and party names are disclosed, but the file itself remains off-limits to the public. Goettel quoted the 1998 state Supreme Court case of Pamela B. v. Ment, which held that the chief court administrator cannot “formulate or interfere with rules of practice and procedure that directly control the conduct of particular litigation.” In granting the motion to dismiss, Goettel concluded that neither Sullivan nor Pellegrino “has the authority nor the power to provide the plaintiffs with the relief they seek.” Daniel J. Klau, who is representing the Law Tribune in the dispute, said, “The very catch-22 that we were trying to get out of, we’re still stuck in.” “If you accept Judge Goettel’s decision as correct,” Klau added, “there’s nothing that any newspaper can do, because you can’t intervene in a case where you don’t know the docket number. And you can’t intervene in [the] 10,000 cases where you know the docket number and no other information,” said Klau. “So for all intents and purposes, there’s no remedy, according to Judge Goettel.” A media law and appellate attorney in Pepe & Hazard’s Hartford office, Klau said the newspaper will continue to pursue the matter, most likely through an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Maureen Danehy Cox, of Waterbury’s Carmody & Torrance, has taken over the case for the Judicial Branch in light of partner James K. Robertson Jr.’s recent nomination to the Superior Court bench. “Judge Goettel,” she said last week, “recognized the need to balance the public’s right of access with the Level 1 and Level 2 parties’ rights to privacy and their confidence in the finality and reliability of the administration of their cases.” The two newspapers, in a � 1983 civil rights action, challenged the legitimacy of maintaining a secret file system that, for decades, allowed ongoing cases — sometimes involving influential politicians or celebrities — to quietly vanish from all public view. Goettel’s 25-page decision explained the system as defined in a June 12, 2000, memo from Civil Court Manager Judith Stanulis, which described the three levels of secret filing. In a Level 1 filing, “court personnel may not acknowledge the existence of such cases, nor do such cases appear on the official docket system or motions calendar.” Level 2 cases disclose party names and docket numbers, but all documents in the file are sealed, while Level 3 cases have individual documents sealed within an open case. After the existence of this shadowy system was revealed by the Law Tribune last December, the Rules Committee of the Superior Court proposed the elimination of the super-secret filings. That and other reforms were approved and took effect July 1. Court rules now provide for Internet public notice of motions to close files or courtrooms. Still, pre-existing Level 1 cases and some 10,000 Level 2 cases remain, and aren’t subject to the rules changes. In the suit, the newspapers didn’t ask for the unsealing of such cases, but requested a court order to disclose party names and docket sheets, including docket numbers, to provide, as Courant attorney Ralph G. Elliot put it, “a table of contents” to the sealed cases. Elliot, a First Amendment scholar, is a partner in the Hartford offices of Tyler Cooper & Alcorn. In arguments before Goettel in Waterbury on the defendants’ motion to dismiss, Klau contended that the issue was based in the First Amendment, and is not controlled by state statutes, regulations or clerks’ memoranda. Elliot argued that no Practice Book rule or statute authorized hiding court cases in this way, and contended that the basic docket information requested could be supplied through a simple administrative order. But Goettel did not find a clear directive in the constitutional case law. He cited U.S. v. McVeigh, a 1977 case from the 10th Circuit, stating “[t]here is not yet any definitive Supreme Court ruling on whether there is a constitutional right of access to court documents and, if so, the scope of such right.” He noted that the defendants state “there is no definitive case decided in the Second Circuit” on the issue. Goettel worked his way through a litany of federal abstention doctrines — Pullman, Younger, Burford and Rooker-Feldman — but concluded that the facts of the case do not fit into any of those, and that the matter is proper for federal court. Turning to constitutional principles, Goettel quoted ringing phrases from case law: “The public and the press have a right to attend trials in civil matters and to inspect and copy judicial records. … The guarantee of open public proceedings in civil trials applies to the sealing of court documents. … Public scrutiny over the court system promotes confidence in the fair administration of justice. …” But noting that the public’s right to observe court proceedings is not absolute, he concluded the top judges lacked state statutory power to vacate sealing orders.

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