The public is soon likely to see details of what led federal investigators to seek, receive and execute search warrants against the home and offices of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, last April.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley III of the Southern District of New York ruled partially in favor of a host of news organizations seeking the disclosure of the search warrants. Ruling on common law grounds, Pauley ordered the government to provide a partially redacted version of the documents to the court by Feb. 28 for his review before likely placing them on the public docket.
Following Cohen’s guilty plea in August to tax evasion and campaign finance violations, a host of news organizations—including The New York Times, the Associated Press, and CNN—filed applications to have documents connected to the April 9, 2018 searches unsealed.
The government opposed unsealing the documents, citing the threat doing so would pose to an ongoing investigation and the prejudice uncharged third parties could face. Cohen did submit papers in the matter.
Pauley made clear he heard the government’s concerns. A “wholesale disclosure” at this point would “reveal the scope and direction of the Government’s ongoing investigation” into people and organizations related to Cohen’s campaign finance plea.
The government’s charges stemmed from efforts by Cohen and Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, to pay off two women who claimed to have extramarital affairs with Trump, ahead of the November election. As detailed in court papers and news reports, numerous individuals—including the President himself, the Trump Organization, and the publisher of the National Enquirer—were connected to the actions Cohen pleaded guilty to.
Agreeing that the government had shown good cause for concern over its ongoing efforts in this category, Pauley ordered that the warrant material related to Cohen’s campaign finance charges be redacted in its entirety. The same was not the case for the tax evasion charges that stemmed from Cohen’s taxi medallion dealings, and attempts to improperly secure loans from financial institutions. While some information related to third parties would be allowed to be redacted by the government, Pauley ordered that much of it be released.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment on Pauley’s order.
While the news organizations could claim a degree of victory in Pauley’s order, a good portion of the 30-page decision by the judge went into dismantling arguments made by the news groups for disclosure of the warrants on First Amendment right-to-access grounds. While he noted that while the Second Circuit allows for a common law analysis to trump a constitutional one, Pauley went ahead in describing how other circuits have generally ruled against broad First Amendment grounds for unsealing. He we went on to dismiss the plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments, finding “neither experience nor logic points to a First Amendment right to access.
The news organizations are represented by Davis Wright Tremaine partner Rachel Strom. She did not respond to a request for comment.