Showing posts with label accountability. Show all posts
Showing posts with label accountability. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Court rejects qui tam suit against big banks because whistleblower relied on publicly available data

"Big Ballin' Money Shot" by Louish Pixel CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A whistleblower alleged that a who's who of big banks is improperly manipulating the municipal bond market to profit at the expense of Massachusetts taxpayers.  But the Massachusetts high court today rejected the whistleblower's lawsuit because he relied on public data.

This case is of interest because it arises under, and narrows, a state false claims act.  With the federal government doling out billions of dollars in pandemic relief to corporate America, I've predicted, and it doesn't take a crystal ball, that we're going to see a rise in corruption and a corresponding rise in enforcement actions.  One key enforcement mechanism is a false claims act.  In anticipation of good work to be had for lawyers in the false claims vein in coming years, I added the subject this spring to coverage in my 1L Torts II class.

False claims cases, or "qui tam actions," allow any person, a member of the general public called "a relator," to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the government, that is, the public, to recover money lost to fraud or misfeasance.  Derived conceptually from Roman law and carried on in Anglo-American common law for centuries, "qui tam" is short for a Latin phrase meaning one who sues on behalf of the king and for oneself.  Relators are incentivized by being entitled to a cut of any recovery.  Qui tam is authorized in the United States by federal law (§§ 3729-3722, and at DOJ) and the laws of many states (at Mass. AG), varying in their particulars, and also can be a part of sectoral enforcement mechanisms, especially in healthcare and finance.

In the instant case, relator "B.J." Johan Rosenberg, an investment analyst and capital adviser with experience in municipal securities, alleged that banks are pricing municipal bonds and manipulating the market in ways that profitably breach their obligations to their public clients.  Defendants in the Massachusetts case include Chase, Citi, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) dug into the particulars, which make my eyes glaze over and remind me why I have a financial adviser.  Suffice to say that Rosenberg understands this stuff well.  In 2019, Bloomberg described him as the "mystery man behind $3.6 billion in muni lawsuits," referring to qui tam actions in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts.  In 2015, Bloomberg reported, Rosenberg patented "MuniPriceTracker," a software designed to "ferret out Wall Street chicanery."

Rosenberg's analytical software is key in the instant case, and there the problem arises.  The false claims act in Massachusetts law (§§ 5A to 5O), as in federal law, bars claims based on publicly available information, whether from government reports or "news media."  The theory is that a qui tam statute should incentivize whistle-blowing by persons privy to information that the government and public are not, rather than potentially rewarding someone who rushes to the courthouse with old information.  As the SJC put it: "Where the essential features of an individual's purported chicanery already have been illuminated, ... affording a private party an incentive to bring suit is unwarranted, as it would add nothing to the Commonwealth's knowledge[.]"

The tricky bit in the instant case is that Rosenberg ran his software analysis on publicly available data.  That sourcing disallowed his action.  The court reasoned: "[I]t suffices that other members of the public, albeit with sufficient expertise and after having conducted some analysis, could have identified the true state of affairs by conducting the same data-crunching exercise as did the relator, using the data publicly available on the [Electronic Municipal Market Access] website."

Well, maybe.  To me, the phrase, "with sufficient expertise" is working overtime in that reasoning.  Rosenberg's method is sophisticated enough to be patent-worthy.  I don't think the average taxpayer spends weekends crunching market numbers, however publicly available they are.  And there's no evidence that anyone's doing it at the AG's office, either.  I worry that this narrowing of false claims to exclude "sweat of the brow" extrapolation from public records ill equips society to respond to sophisticated corporate malfeasance that can be revealed only by equally sophisticated detective work.

But I've already confessed my ignorance of finance.  You can read the 36-page opinion and decide for yourself.  Or choose among the views of the amici: the CFA Institute and Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund supported Rosenberg, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and New England Legal Foundation supported the banks.

The case is Rosenberg v. JPMorgan Chase & Co., No. SJC-12973 (Mass. May 11, 2020).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote the opinion, affirming the lower court, for a unanimous SJC of six justices.  She was an accomplished patent attorney before going on the bench.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Courts extend European accountability laws to private actors: Italian soccer federation, Irish wind farm

Two recent court decisions in Europe construed European directives on public accountability to reach ostensibly private actors, the Italian soccer federation and an Irish wind-power producer.

Stocksnap by Michal Jarmoluk CC0
The problem of accountability for private actors performing public functions is as old as the corporate form.  Burgeoning corporatocracy in the electronic era has rendered new challenges to the classical public-private dichotomy, in recent years, especially, in the area of social media regulation (e.g., pro and con).  I have written about rethinking this problem in the context of access to information, regarding reform in both the United States and Europe, and I continue to research emerging models in the developing world.  As a general matter, Europe has been much less reticent than the United States to breach the public-private line with accountability mechanisms such as transparency laws.

In early February, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg ruled that the Italian Football Federation, or Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC), an ostensibly private entity, is sometimes a public body for purposes of the 2014 European directive on public procurement.  The directive defines public bodies within its purview:

(a) they are established for the specific purpose of meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character;

(b) they have legal personality; and

(c) they are financed, for the most part, by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law; or are subject to management supervision by those authorities or bodies; or have an administrative, managerial or supervisory board, more than half of whose members are appointed by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law.

The definition is not unlike formulations in state freedom of information acts in the United States, which tend to press harder against the public-private line than the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does.  A classic example of disparate approaches in the states concerns access to the wealthy private foundations that lurk behind public universities.  My colleague Professor Robert Steinbuch has been bearing the transparency standard on this front in Arkansas and is supporting a bill there now.

At issue in the Italian case was a contract for porter services when foreign squads visit Italy.  A disappointed contractor challenged the process and won a round in Italy's high administrative court, and the appellate Council of State in Italy referred the interpretation question to the CJEU.  Both in the United States and globally, governing bodies in sport, often set up as private or quasi-public entities, have posed aggravating challenges in public accountability like the university-foundation problem.  Inapplicability of the FOIA to the US Olympic Committee has been cited as a contributing factor in sexual-assault cover-ups, and last summer, I took in no fewer than three books and a TV series on the intractable corruption in world soccer.

The CJEU opinion determined that the FIGC, constituted under private law, can act as a private body when it has autonomy to form private contracts.  However, the Italian National Olympic Committee (NOC) is a public body and has supervisory power, sometimes with a controlling stake, over some FIGC functions.  Insofar as the NOC is calling the shots on contracts, the FIGC is a public body, subject to public procurement rules.  The CJEU opinion now goes back to the Italian courts to parse the specifics. 

Cronelea Wind Farm in County Wicklow, 2008
Meanwhile, in late January, the High Court of Ireland ruled that electric company Raheenleagh Power DAC (RP) is a "public authority" for purposes of the Irish enactment of the European directive on public access to environmental information.  The law and directive define public authorities:

(a) government or other public administration, including public advisory bodies, at national, regional or local level;

(b) any natural or legal person performing public administrative functions under national law, including specific duties, activities or services in relation to the environment; and

(c) any natural or legal person having public responsibilities or functions, or providing public services, relating to the environment under the control of a body or person falling within (a) or (b).

Reversing the Irish Commissioner for Environmental Information, the High Court determined that RP came within the definition's latter terms.  The court explained, "RP is a joint-venture company which operates a wind farm in a forest in the Wicklow Mountains. The wind farm supplies electricity to the national grid."  Complicating the analysis, the RP venture includes a one-half stake by the national-monopoly Electricity Supply Board (ESB), which the court described as "an independent semi-State company."

Like in the Italian case, the court reasoned that ESB control and management of RP brought it within the purview of public accountability law.  The ruling is important for the example it sets amid the wide range of public-private hybrids providing critical utility and infrastructure across Europe and the world.

Even so, I would like to have seen the court hang its hat more firmly on the functional analysis of the cited paragraph (b), rather than resorting to the paradigm of state control.  The urgent communal interests at stake in environmental protection have been a salient inducement to the extension of transparency law in Europe and Africa.  Western social democracies have been keen to ameliorate the effects of climate change, and many African regimes have awakened to lasting environmental damage inflicted by colonial enterprises.

The Italian case is FIGC v. De Vellis Servizi Globali Srl, nos. C‑155/19 and C‑156/19, ECLI:EU:C:2021:88 (CJEU Feb. 3, 2021).  Cain Burdeau has coverage for Courthouse NewsSven Demeulemeester, William Timmermans, and Matthias Ballieu have commentary for Altius in Belgium.

The Irish case is Right to Know CLG v. Commissioner for Environmental Information, [2021] IEHC 46 (High Ct. Jan. 25, 2021) (Ireland).  Mr. Justice Alexander Owens delivered the judgment.  Right to Know is a transparency advocacy organization headed by activist, blogger, and entrepreneur Gavin Sheridan and former and working journalists.  Jonathan Moore and Patrick Reilly have commentary for Field Fisher in Dublin.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

How many people suffer while state unemployment office shuffles paper, issues baseless denials?

I wrote in 2020 about the pay cuts foisted on faculty and staff at UMass Dartmouth.  We're a union shop, which is weird for university faculty in the United States, but at least is supposed to be good for workers.  So for my pay cut—about 11.6%, plus $4k in professional development budget, over one calendar year, so far—the union got me, in return—wait, let me punch the numbers into the calculator—

Nothing.

I quit my union membership once and for all, before the ink dried on the union's Memorandum of Abdication.  But thanks to the compulsory representation law in Massachusetts, I'm still bound to give away anything the union, with its refined talents at the bargaining table, decides that I should give away.

Let me interject a disclaimer that I am not complaining about having a job during the pandemic.  As will become clear momentarily, I am writing about this for the very reason that my concern extends to the many persons who are not as fortunate.  I push myself every day, literally every day, to count my blessings and be grateful, and to find a way to show compassion for those facing hardships during this crisis.  Some days I do better than other days.

With regard to my personal situation, I suggest, I hope modestly, only that in exchange for a pay cut, there might have been some benefit afforded in return: maybe a leniency in job requirements, such as research or teaching load; maybe flexibility in course scheduling; maybe an "IOU" for development budget down the road.  I might could have been bought off for the price of some reference books from my wish list.  Or a new hoodie.  I can always use a hoodie.

I suggested these bargaining chips (except the hoodie) to the union.  No response.  I understand.  It takes a lot of energy and focus to give so much away in so short a time.

But this isn't about the union.  Not today.  Today I write about another bloated bureaucracy feeding ironically at taxpayer teats: the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance, or "Mass UI."

I was given the option, which I accepted, to take part of my pay cut as furlough during the holidays in December.  There was absolutely no reduction to my workload in December, so one might question the utility of a furlough.  But the idea was, the university told us if carefully to disclaim any guarantee, we could claim unemployment insurance to recover a fraction of four days' pay.  It happens that my wife, who also works for the university as an administrator, also took a pay cut (two, actually, for staff) and furlough (also two).  I'm trying to leave her out of this, and I definitely do not speak for her, so I will tell only what I have to to get my story across.

Let me interject again: As a taxpayer, I am not a fan of one financially stressed public institution shoving its accounts payable off on another financially stressed public institution.  That doesn't seem to me to be an efficient way to solve the problem of stress on the fisc.  But I don't make the rules.  We've got a kid in college.  I'm not leaving money on the table.

So we both filed, at different times in 2020, for whatever unemployment insurance we might recoup.

My wife's online account access was immediately shut down, purportedly in response to a spate of fraudulent claims received by Mass UI.  While her access was blocked, Mass UI (claims that it) sent an electronic request for documents to confirm her identity.  She didn't know about any request, because access was blocked.  She couldn't file the docs, even if she'd known to, because access was blocked.  Meanwhile, Mass UI confirmed the validity of her claim with university HR.  

And then Mass UI denied her claim anyway for supposed failure to provide ID.  She didn't even find out about the denial until months later, because, say it with me, access was blocked.

Having witnessed that mess of an experience, I set my account for hard-copy correspondence only, by mail.  Mass UI sent to me, in hard copy, a request for documents to confirm my identity.  Promptly, I returned, in hard copy, the documents requested.  Presumably, Mass UI could confirm my identity, too, and the legitimacy of my claim, with the university.  I work for the state, after all.  But I was trying to play nice.

Twenty days later, Mass UI denied my claim anyway for supposed failure to provide ID.

We both now have appeals pending.  I expect we will have to go to Boston for hearings (50 miles and two hours each way, expensive parking, different days).  As yet, the hearings have not been scheduled.  My wife's first claim dates back to the summer, in the heyday of federal subsidies.  Good times.

As I just wrote to the Commonwealth Attorney General, at some point, misfeasance slides into malfeasance.  I don't know what's going on at Mass UI.  But it's inexcusable.

And that brings me back around to people who are really hurt by this kind of misfeasance or malfeasance by public officials.  People already are suffering for so many reasons: pandemic risk, joblessness, homelessness, systemic disadvantages of race and socioeconomics.  If my family's experience with Mass UI has resulted in two out of two legitimate, easily confirmed claims being rejected on nakedly indefensible, if not outrightly false, grounds, then how many claims are being wrongfully denied for claimants who are depending on unemployment assistance in a time of crisis?

Look, we're lucky.  I know it.  We're both lawyers.  We have the know-how to appeal, and to sue if necessary.  We have the flexibility in our work to adjust our schedules for hearings, and a car to go to Boston if we have to.  We make decent money, even after pay cuts, educational loan debt, and college tuition bills.  We'll be OK.

But today is one of those days that I feel like I'm falling short on compassionate action.  I should do something.  Something should be done.  

I don't know what.  Or how.

I do suspect that Mass UI is running the vaccine roll-out.

This blog is mine and mine alone, and not a product of my employer.  I speak as a private citizen, not a representative of the university, even if my writing sometimes also serves public interests, which is part of my job.  I reference my job and work profile on this blog for purpose of identification only.  While this disclaimer always pertains, I wish to emphasize it today.

UPDATE, Feb. 16, 2021: Our IDs were accepted and matters remanded from appeal to reprocessing thanks to heroic intervention, for which we are grateful, by an individual in the UMass Dartmouth HR office.  Of course, that doesn't alleviate our concerns about people in Massachusetts who are in serious need. WGBH reported on February 8 on "shocking[] dysfunction[]" in the system, having exactly the impact we feared.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Legal scholars overlook scholarship about state FOIA, but dedicated academics toil for state transparency

Professor Robert Steinbuch and I aim to draw attention to the undersung work of state-law transparency  scholars through our recent publication in the Rutgers Law Record.  Here is the introductory paragraph.

We have read with interest Christina Koningisor’s publication, Transparency Deserts. While there is much to be lauded in the work – all access advocates would like to see more scholarship and publicity about the importance of transparency and accountability – we are disheartened by the article’s failure to recognize the extant vibrant body of scholarship and activism in state freedom of information law.

[¶] We, moreover, find this omission characteristic of a broader ignorance in legal academia of the sweat and toil of legal scholars, scholar-practitioners, and interdisciplinary academics who analyze and advocate for state transparency laws. This blind spot particularly manifests, unfortunately, among those at elite (typically coastal) law schools, who generally contribute vitally to the literature of the undoubtedly important federal transparency regime. These federal freedom-of-information scholars too often neglect the critical importance of state transparency laws – as well as state-transparency legal academics.

[¶] Quite in contrast, state-law access advocates generally acknowledge the value of federal statutory analogs, often referencing federal norms and practices comparatively, while, nonetheless, working upon the apt assumption that state access laws, en masse, have a greater day-to-day impact in improving Americans’ lives and in enhancing democratic accountability in America than does the federal Freedom of Information Act. Koningisor’s article evidences this disappointing tension. 

The publication is Transparency Blind Spot: A Response to Transparency Deserts, 48 Rutgers L. Rec. 1 (2020).  The publication is available for download from SSRN.  

Christina Koningisor, author of the referenced Transparency Deserts, kindly responded on the FOI listserv and gave me permission to share her thoughts.  Included is a link to her ongoing work.  Professor Steinbuch and I could not be happier to engage in a dialog that educates scholars and the public on the importance of state FOIA.

[T]hank you to Rick and Rob for taking the time to so thoughtfully respond to my piece. I sincerely appreciate it. And I take your points of criticism. The article certainly could have benefited from drawing more upon the excellent state-level scholarship that you cite in your response to my piece. I will also be sure, moving forward, to draw more heavily from the accomplished work being done by communications and journalism scholars. The point that I meant to make in my article, and which I should have stated more clearly, is that there is less overarching scholarship on public records laws across the fifty states. Of course, there are excellent state-by-state studies and critiques, some of which I cite in my piece, and many of which I do not, and which you have helpfully flagged in your response. But I was more interested in the work that has been done looking at the state of these laws as a whole. At this level, we can begin to make generalizations about what is working and what is not that are more difficult to observe when focusing solely on a single state. Rick and Rob's response seems to suggest that such surveys are inherently flawed, because they will inevitably be underinclusive and cannot possibly account for the variation across the fifty state legal regimes and the hundreds of thousands of state and local government entities. I agree—I explicitly make this point, and acknowledge the limitations of tackling such a diverse array of laws and government entities in my article's methodology section. But I believe it is nonetheless important to take stock of how these laws operate nationwide, so long as we are forthright and honest about the limitations of any fifty-state survey. I think there is value in and space in the literature for both state-by-state deep-dives and overarching cross-state examinations. Rick and Rob do highlight, in their appendix, some of the broader cross-state scholarship on state public records law that I failed to cite, most of which are published in communications and journalism journals. Again, I concede this point and agree that I should become more familiar with this interdisciplinary work.

I also want to note briefly that my Article reaches a somewhat more nuanced conclusion than transparency is simply worse at the state and local level. I do stress the significant advantages that many state public records laws have over FOIA, including the more rapid response times, the absence of a national security apparatus and classification process impeding access, and, often, the greater accessibility of state and local records officers, among other advantages. I also note that many of these state laws suffer drawbacks when compared to FOIA: many do not have easy and relatively cheap administrative-level appeal options, for example, and the costs of records production at the state and local level can often be prohibitive. Further, although there is no national security secrecy apparatus at the state and local level, it is often exceptionally difficult to obtain records from state and local law enforcement agencies. The piece was in fact inspired by my experiences working as a lawyer at The New York Times, where, in the process of assisting reporters with their federal, state, and local records requests across the country (not just in the coastal states!), I noticed that local police departments were often the most difficult agencies to obtain records from, in some ways even more secretive and difficult to work with than even the federal intelligence agencies. But more critically, the article emphasizes that when these state laws do fail—and I think we can all agree that they sometimes do—there are fewer alternative routes for information to come to light. These transparency failures are exacerbated by broader structural features of state and local government, including reduced external checks from local media and civil society organizations, and reduced intra-governmental checks between the various branches of government. This is of course not to say that every law fails in every instance, or that there aren't many excellent civil society organizations in many places doing critical work on government transparency and oversight. Of course there are abundant examples of such laudable advocacy efforts. But there are also many places across the country where local media institutions have disappeared, civil society organizations are in dire financial straits, and intra-governmental checks are muted. The nation's access laws are remarkably diverse, and contain myriad examples of both transparency failures and successes.

Once again, I very much appreciate these thoughtful and incisive responses to my piece, and I hope to continue this conversation moving forward. I have a new state transparency law-related article, [Secrecy Creep,] forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. It is still quite early in the editing process, so I would love to hear any feedback and suggestions ....

Monday, April 13, 2020

Trust in government requires access to information in time of crisis

The Governor of my home state, Rhode Island, limited the operation of state freedom of information laws among her executive orders early in the coronavirus crisis, I noted two weeks ago. She was not alone among governors in doing so.  Some limitations make sense.  Paper record access is complicated by closed offices, and open meetings by social distancing.  At the same time, care must be taken to ensure that access to government is not restricted excessively. For excess restriction, we pay a price in transparency and trust in government, and that price can compromise human health no less than the virus itself.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, writes eloquently and timely on the state of public access amid our pandemic emergency in the newly released volume 2, number 1, of The Journal of Civic Information
At a time when prompt access to accurate information could literally mean the difference between life and death, the laws mandating disclosure of information to the public are being relaxed in the name of government efficiency, while those mandating secrecy are being applied rigidly (and at times, inaccurately over-applied). This isn’t just a problem for journalists and researchers. As Harvard University health-law professor I. Glenn Cohen told The New York Times: “Public health depends a lot on public trust. If the public feels as though they are being misled or misinformed their willingness to make sacrifices – in this case social distancing – is reduced.” Perhaps the lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic – and it will be a relief to speak of the pandemic in the past tense – will be a generational recommitment to restore custody of critical health-and-safety information to its rightful public owners.
The article is Frank LoMonte, Casualties of a Pandemic: Truth, Trust and Transparency, 2:1 J. Civic Info. iii (2020), and free for download with the latest edition of the journal.  Also included in the volume are research articles on public record officer perspectives on transparency, by Brett G. Johnson, University of Missouri, and on legislative conflict over the Washington State open records law, by Peggy Watt, Western Washington University, with an editor's note from David Cuillier, University of Arizona.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Boston Globe wins access to booking photos, incident reports involving arrests of police officers

In the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on March 12, the Boston Globe won access to booking photographs and incidents reports related to arrests of police officers under the state open records law.

The case arose from the denial of multiple public record requests, including two following State Police arrests of local law enforcement officers for operating motor vehicles while under the influence in 2012 and 2014.  State police resisted disclosure, claiming the records were not public as part of the state's "criminal record offender information" (CORI) database, which is exempt from disclosure by statute.

The exemption of criminal record information systems is the rule rather than the exception in the United States, in theory, to protect personal privacy.  Sometimes persons are never charged, or even arrested, or are exonerated prior to court proceedings, and public policy disfavors sullying reputation by association with police action.  On the opposite end of the criminal justice process, there is concern that even a person who is convicted of a crime will never escape the reputational impact of police involvement, especially in the age of an internet that never forgets.  Critics of non-disclosure policy claim that secrecy undermines accountability, which is especially important for law enforcement; and treats the public paternalistically, as if people cannot understand the relative significance of different stages of involvement with the police and criminal justice system, including the significance of having done one's time.  This tension of competing policy aims, especially as it plays out in the electronic age, and especially as it relates to visual media, implicates "practical obscurity," a conundrum that has dogged access policy for more than four decades and also marks a flashpoint in the trans-Atlantic privacy debate.

Examining the open records law, even as amended by the Massachusetts legislature while appeal was pending, aiming to bolster the state's position on the privacy-access seesaw, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the records not shielded by the CORI statute's exemption for criminal record information. Employing the rule of narrow construction of access exemptions, the court concluded, "[W]e cannot read exemption (a) so broadly as to shield all investigatory materials created by police from disclosure. We therefore conclude that the booking photographs and incident reports sought here are not absolutely exempt from disclosure as public records under exemption (a) 'by necessary implication' of the CORI act."

Moreover, though police had not argued the point, the court ruled the records not exempt as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, at least in the particular context of police as arrestees.  The privacy exemption calls for a balance.  The court explained, "On the privacy side of the scale, we generally 'have looked to three factors to assess the weight of the privacy interest at stake: (1) whether disclosure would result in personal embarrassment to an individual of normal sensibilities; (2) whether the materials sought contain intimate details of a highly personal nature; and (3) whether the same information is available from other sources'" (citations omitted).  Also, "privacy factors include the risk of adverse collateral consequences to the individual that might arise from the disclosure of this criminal justice information. 'On the other side of the scale, we have said that the public has a recognized interest in knowing whether public servants are carrying out their duties in a law-abiding and efficient manner'" (citation omitted).

When police are themselves accused of crimes, the balance that might otherwise favor the ordinary citizen swings in favor of public accountability, the court reasoned. "There is a substantial public interest in the disclosure of police incident reports regarding alleged offenses by police officers and public officials that do not result in arraignment. And disclosure of the booking photographs will eliminate confusion as to the identity of those arrested where they may have common names that may be shared by others."

The court's conclusions accord with norms in state access law in the United States.  Though criminal information systems on the whole usually are exempt from disclosure, individual incident reports related to arrest usually are not—notwithstanding the fact that an exempt criminal record database may comprise records that are not exempt individually.  (Booking photos, or mug shots, also, traditionally have not been exempt from disclosure as a class of record, though that has been changing in recent years, because of a cottage industry in privacy invasion, and even extortion, that's cropped up online.)  Personal privacy exemptions are sometimes held to protect personal identity ad hoc, within police records as a class, and incident reports without resulting arrest may be exempt from disclosure.  But personal privacy exemptions typically implicate a balance, and courts tend to favor access when public officials are under scrutiny, especially when law enforcement officers are suspected of violating the law.

The case is Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, No. SJC-12690 (Mar. 12, 2020) (Justia, Suffolk Law).  Chief Justice Gants wrote the opinion for a unanimous court.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Gambia AG initiates truth inquiry to get country on track

A Gambian customs office shades goats near the southern border with Senegal.
All images: RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.

The TRRC process includes public awareness via signage.
With the independence of a nation's attorney general now the subject of discussion in the United States, consider Ba Tambadou, AG of the African nation of Gambia, where I visited on its independence day, February 18. A former Hague prosecutor, Tambadou was instrumental in creating the present Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission, which now is holding hearings in Gambia and dropping revelations nearly by the day in the news there.


The Gambian TRRC concerns abuses of power, including repressive violence and press suppression, that kept Yahya Jammeh in control of the country from 1994 coup to surprise election upset in 2017. The ex president now lives in exile, in reportedly sweet digs in Equatorial Guinea. He seems to have ample access to the fortune he looted on the job, which is looking like hundreds of millions of dollars, despite a 2017 US freeze on his assets under the Magnitsky Act.

TRRC proceedings captivate public attention on TVs in Banjul.

Unfortunately Gambia's elected president, Adama Barrow, has raised eyebrows by recently rescinding a pledge to serve only three years, though the national constitution does permit five. Political opponents whisper about corruption, and no doubt nerves are raw since the country finally freed itself of Jammeh. All the more important then is the independent judgment exercised by Tambadou to shine light on historical misdeeds. The TRRC is the sixth of its kind on the African continent and essential to break the cycle of maladministration in government, and hence the cycle of underdevelopment and poverty in this brilliantly diverse yet smallest mainland nation of Africa.

American rice bags are repurposed to make a mattress in Gambia. All images: RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.


Friday, November 8, 2019

Grand jury secrecy is not sacrosanct

Actors reenact the Moore's Ford lynchings every year or two, lest the public
forget.  (July 26, 2014, photo by artstuffmatters, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)
Georgia Public Broadcasting reported recently (via NPR; see also WaPo (pay wall)) that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit will soon decide whether to unseal the grand jury records pertaining to a 73-year-old lynching case.  Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ponders whether to open contemporary grand jury records in the "38 Studios" economic development scandal.  Both cases remind us that grand jury secrecy is not sacrosanct and must yield to paramount public interests.

GPB reported more in August about the brutal murders of Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, her brother, George Dorsey, and his wife, Mae Murray Dorsey, at the hands of a mob of 20 to 30 assailants at Moore's Ford Bridge, outside Monroe, Georgia, in 1946.  As many people were there, the crime remains "unsolved," as GPB's Grant Blankenship explained:
The crime made national headlines. Over the course of a grand jury investigation, the FBI interviewed over 2,000 people—almost half of the county in 1946. A hundred people testified before the grand jury, but not a single indictment was handed down.
Now historians seek to unseal the grand jury records to find out more about what happened that day in 1946 and why the investigation was unyielding.  The Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation are resisting.

Incidentally but importantly, the definitive book on the Moore's Ford case is Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America, by Laura Wexler.  I went to secondary school with Wexler, so #BrushWithGreatness.

I welcome public reminders that grand jury secrecy is not sacrosanct.  Grand jury secrecy is a reasoned and historically derived common law inversion of the usual presumption of transparency in our judiciary.  As such, it's an odd nod, for our typically ruthless paradigm of all-or-nothing privacy, to the importance of protecting the reputations of persons who might be connected with investigations, but turn out not to be fairly implicated as witnesses or suspects.

However, an inverted presumption is still a presumption, which means it can be overcome, or rebutted.  Equally historically, common law has allowed challengers in the public interest to overcome grand jury secrecy, for example, after Watergate.  Transparency is a means to accountability, and when a gross miscarriage of justice has occurred, as seems indisputable in the Moore's Ford case, the public interest in learning what went wrong in the investigation, and possibly delivering some belated justice, may be ruled paramount.

R.I. Gov. Raimondo
(Kenneth C. Zirkel
CC BY-SA 3.0)
Meanwhile, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo is feuding with the state Attorney General's Office over access to the records of grand jury proceedings in 2014 and 2015 over the "38 Studios" economic development scandal.

As The Providence Journal recalled, "The state’s $75-million loan guarantee to retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s high-risk video game venture ended up costing taxpayers a bundle when the company went belly up."  Criminal investigation was, again, unyielding.  "The statewide grand jury sat for 18 months, ending in 2015 with no criminal indictments. State lawmakers, former state Economic Development Corporation board members and staff, and 38 Studios executives were among the 146 witnesses the grand jury interviewed."

The ProJo summarized the pro and con of unsealing.  On the Governor's side, the state's attorney told the Rhode Island Supreme Court, 38 Studios marks "'a seminal event in recent Rhode Island history. It has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. It has brought threats to the State’s credit rating.  It spawned a massive civil litigation resulting in $61 million of settlements. It caused the Securities and Exchange Commission to file a complaint against a state agency.... It prompted a criminal probe that reportedly touched the entire membership of the 2010 General Assembly (save one former member serving a federal prison sentence).'"

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was the only game published by 38 Studios
(and partners, including EA) before the enterprise went bankrupt.
The AG's office responded: "'[N]o one was indicted, the grand jury only recently concluded, the participants are still alive, and ... the [10-year] statute of limitations has not expired.... Unlimited disclosure ... may also adversely affect future grand jury participants who will be unable to rely upon the long-established policy that maintains the secrecy of the grand jury proceedings.'"

Ongoing payments to bondholders will cost R.I. taxpayers, me included, "$446,819 this year and an anticipated $12,288,413 next year," the ProJo reported.  I'm with Raimondo.  The Superior Court was not.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday, November 7, In re 38 Studios Grand Jury, No. SU-2017-0301-A, but puts precious little online.  The ACLU of Rhode Island filed as amicus on the side of the Governor.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Whistleblowers call foul, Play the Game

Marcus Carmichael
(Chris Turner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Whistleblowers are basking in an adoring limelight in the United States right now. They better enjoy it while it lasts, because the American taste for whistleblowing is fickle.

All the attention being paid to whistleblowing in Washington, you would think that whistleblowers are heroes of democratic liberty, Paul Reveres on midnight rides of revelation. Now there’s a second whistleblower, and maybe a third, and, why, people just can’t get in line fast enough to become whistleblowers.

I have to roll my eyes when I hear people waxing poetic over the great tradition of the American whistleblower. Catch those same people on a different day, different issue, or different side of the fence, and they’ll be lashing the whistleblower to the stake and setting their torches to the kindling like it’s the Spanish Inquisition. For much of American history, whistleblowing has been synonymous with disloyalty and treachery.

The Washington whistleblower caused WNYC’s On the Media to replay a 2015 segment in which Brooke Gladstone interviewed language writer Ben Zimmer and consumer protection advocate and civil rights crusader Ralph Nader. The early-20th-century word whistleblowing, Zimmer explained, comes from what it sounds like: a referee blowing the whistle to stop play in event of a penalty. (See Transparency International for the word’s translations, born of other cultural contexts.) No sooner did the word come about that it acquired a dark connotation. It meant, Gladstone said, “to snitch, to rat, to steal.” You can hear that usage, Zimmer pointed out, in the classic film On the Waterfront (1954), in reference to the enemies of organized labor. In this sense, Trump’s “spy” notion is not so far off the mark.



Nader was responsible for turning the word around in the 1970s. He pleaded for insiders to break ranks in his public safety crusade against Big Auto, and he repurposed the term whistleblowing with the positive spin of serving the greater good, despite disloyalty in the short term. So the word is not the thing. Gladstone nailed the salient distinction, which is whether the whistleblowing accords with one’s value judgments. Trump’s traitor is Pelosi’s star witness. Ed Snowden deserves either a presidential medal or an espionage prosecution. Even Upton Sinclair was a duplicitous meatpacking worker.

Blow the Whistle


Our ambivalence about whistleblowers finds expression in law. When we protect whistleblowers at law—common law usually does not—it’s usually a legislative reaction to something awful that happened, when we wonder why no one in the know said anything. While whistleblower protection statutes are prevalent in the United States at state and federal levels, they are often controversial, hardly comprehensive, and likely to pertain only to the public sector. Protection tends to be narrow and sectoral in scope; to depend upon abundant and variable technical prerequisites; and to offer scant shield from the full range of consequences, formal and informal, that the whistleblower faces. Woe to the would-be whistleblower who fails to hire a lawyer in advance to navigate the legal process. The Washington whistleblower was meticulous. The person either is a lawyer or consulted one.

Far from the glamorous escapades of the Hollywood Insider, the real-life whistleblower’s lot in life is lousy. More whistleblowers become infamous than famous, and most become no one significant at all. Typically whistleblowers find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a catch-22. Behind door number one, go with the flow, stay with the pack, look the other way, and sell out your principles. Behind door number two, stand on principle, and probably lose your job, your livelihood, your home, and your friends, alienate your family, and maybe put your life at risk.

To be fair, not all whistleblowers are motivated by altruism, and not all whistleblower motives are altruistic. Sometimes whistleblowers themselves are victims of the misconduct they are reporting. Sometimes they are grinding an unrelated ax against a perpetrator—which doesn’t make the perpetrator less an offender. Whistleblowers’ motives can be complicated. People are complicated. Altruism is a factor. Courage is a constant.

Play the Game


Last week, I had the extraordinary experience of meeting some whistleblowers in world sport. For me, it was the highlight of Play the Game, an initiative and biennial conference of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, its first meeting outside Europe.  Play the Game aims to raise ethical standards and to promote democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport.

Whistleblowing in sport might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Consider that transnational sport governors such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are among the most powerful non-governmental organizations in the world. Technically they are “nonprofits,” but no one says that with a straight face. Until recently, FIFA and IOC execs sashayed into the offices of presidents, prime ministers, governors, and mayors like they were Regina George’s mean girls on a tear at North Shore High. There were real costs to their shameless greed: global contrails of worthless constructions, impoverished populations, and broken dreams.

That started to change when FIFA and IOC were exposed as corrupt at their cores. Their corruption was exposed by whistleblowers.

Bonita Mersiades (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Bonita Mersiades was a top exec with the Australian Football Federation from 2007 to 2010, when she worked on Australia’s failed bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments. She blew the whistle on the extraordinary demands that FIFA placed on would-be hosts and her own country’s willingness to bend the public interest to conform. Those tournaments we know now were awarded to Russia and Qatar upon such rank corruption as resulted in a 2015 raid by U.S. and Swiss law enforcement and dozens of criminal indictments. Mersiades herself was outed when the investigative report of Assistant U.S. Attorney (now N.Y. Judge) Michael Garcia was made public.

At Play the Game, Mersiades described social ostracism in her community, loss of her career in sport administration, burglary of her home, and hacking and online harassment. She wrote about FIFA corruption and her experience in a 2018 book, Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way.

Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Also on the whistleblower panel (below in full) were Yuliya Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov. Yuliya was a Russian Olympic runner, and Vitaly worked for the Russian anti-doping agency. Together they blew the whistle on Russian doping, breaking open a massive scandal that rocked Russia and the world, exposing not just systematic Russian doping but reckless, if not criminal, indifference in the World Anti-Doping Agency. With good reason, the Stepanovs feared for their lives.  They applied for Canadian asylum and now live in the United States (with their adorable little boy, also in attendance).


Vitaly told a spellbound audience that the stress of the couple’s situation had them on the verge of divorce when, at last, they took the leap into whistleblowing history together. They would have to leave homeland and family behind, and their lives would never be the same. But it was OK, he said, because “after that, … we were united.”

My dinner companions: Mersiades and Dr. Joel Carmichael,
chiropractor to U.S. Olympic athletes
When, over dinner, I lamented the state of patchwork American whistleblower protection law, Mersiades was quick to correct me. It’s much better than Australia, she said. [See UPDATE below.]  In the United States, we do have a somewhat vigorous qui tam field. (Read more at Troxel, Krauss, & Chapman.)  And the federal whistleblower law now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is better than the yawning void of jeopardy into which FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley stepped when she testified in the Senate on 9/11 failures in 2002. She retired from the FBI two and a half years later.

Mersiades book
Still, it seems to me that as a society, we should be able to do better. When the dust settles around the peculiarly technically adept Washington whistleblower, we might ought wonder why whistleblowers aren’t all around us—at every level of government, and in the private sector. Did no one at Purdue Pharma know about aggressive opioid peddling? We should wonder why, in the land of the First Amendment, there are so many disincentives—legal, social, economic—for anyone to speak out as a citizen on a matter of urgent public interest.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” Sinclair said in 1934. That’s why the rule of law must support the apostate who speaks the truth.

The documentary Icarus tells the Russian doping story.
Director Bryan Fogel also spoke on the whistleblowing panel (above) at Play the Game 2019.


For more from Play the Game 2019, see the conference website and the #ptg2019 Twitter feed.

[UPDATE, Oct. 21, at 10:50 a.m. U.S. EDT: A testament to Mersiades's lament that Australian whistleblower protection lags behind democratic demands, witness today's remarkable protest action by Australian newspapers.] 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Media didn't totally lose in Boston Globe access case over show cause criminal procedure

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled against The Boston Globe in the Spotlight team's bid for access to the court records of a narrow class of show cause criminal hearings.  The case is a loss for access advocates, but not wholly.  The court did not deviate from established analyses for access to the judicial records.  And the court used its superintendence power to require data collection for public scrutiny of what happens in these shadowy hearings going forward.

I wrote about this case and these hearings on The Savory Tort in May.  This particular class of "show cause" hearing is a peculiar creature of Massachusetts law and practice, in which a court clerk, not a judge, gets a chance to second-guess police and refuse to issue a criminal complaint, ending a case.  On the up side, this is a process barrier that protects would-be criminal defendants from harsh consequences in minor matters that don't warrant the expenditure of judicial resources, also encouraging alternative dispute resolution.  On the down side, critics have suspicions about these proceedings being used to protect the powerful, to show favoritism among attorneys, and, willfully or not, to effect race and other forms of discrimination in the criminal justice system.

The Globe sought access specifically to records of the sub-class of these hearings in which clerks found probable cause, yet refused to issue criminal complaints.  Public data about these hearings show big disparities among courts in the prevalence of these outcomes, which occur about 9,000 per year in the commonwealth, fueling speculation as to clerks' motives and rationales.  Making matters worse, there is inconsistency in how well clerks record and track what happens in the hearings, often leaving a scant record for review later, whether by a court, public oversight authority, or investigative journalist.

Photo by tfxc. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)
The Globe argued for access under common law, the First Amendment, and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.  In today's ruling, the court rejected access on all three bases.  In doing so, though, the court colored within the lines of existing access doctrine.

Most compelling, first, was the Globe's common law argument: "not without merit," the court conceded.  The court acknowledged that the common law presumption of access to court records is known to attach to three classes of records: criminal cases, search warrants and affidavits after service, and public inquiries.  The court rejected analogy to criminal cases, because the show cause hearing occurs before a criminal case is initiated.  Rather, the proper analogy, the court reasoned, is a grand jury refusal to indict, which is sealed presumptively at common law.  The court also rejected analogy to pre-complaint search warrants, reasoning that the appropriate analogy is to the search warrant denied, or not yet served, when the public interest still weighs in favor of secrecy.

Pressing on the scale in favor of analogy to secret proceedings at common law was the privacy interest of the accused.  Here the broader context of the contemporary internet and technology as a threat to personal privacy overshadowed the court's logic.  The court reasoned that a principal common law rationale for secrecy in grand jury proceedings and in denied search warrants, namely, protection of the reputation of the innocent, is powerfully implicated in today's world, when a public record of a show cause hearing could turn up online.  There it would be accessible to everyone, including landlords and employers, who might discriminate against a person who never suffered a criminal complaint.

For the record, this argument for privacy and reputational integrity pulls at even my skeptical heart strings, as I have advocated for American adoption of the European online erasure concept in precisely this vein, notwithstanding First Amendment objections.  That said, I admit, it's a bit troubling to see this problem of unwarranted discrimination arising in the private misuse of information sneaking in through the back door of common law access and accountability analysis as a justification for government secrets.  Arguably the solution to the misuse of information is to do something about the person who misuses information, rather than redacting the free flow of information itself.  But that's a debate for another day.

Second, the court's First Amendment analysis tracked the common law analysis.  On the up side, the court employed the now long known, if no less opaque and controverted, "experience and logic" test of First Amendment access to the courts.  Building upon the analogy of the show cause hearing to grand jury secrecy, access was bound to fail both prongs of the First Amendment test.  Analogy naturally doomed the experience analysis, because pre-complaint criminal process has never been public.  And the privacy concerns fueled failure of the logic test.  The problem with "experience and logic" always has been that its results are foreordained by how one thinks about the hearing or record to which access is sought. 

Third, the court wrote that it never before has construed the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights more broadly than the First Amendment with regard to judicial access, and it saw no reason to do so today.  That disappoints me mostly just from the broad standpoint of liking creative state judicial construction of state constitutions as an instance of the 50-state-laboratory theory of our federalism.  In an age of paralysis in Washington—think gerrymandering—state constitutional law is a promising way forward.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Faithful to access doctrine, the court pointed out that upon its very same grand jury analogy, it remains possible for an intervening movant, say, an investigative journalist, to seek access to a show cause record on a case by case basis.  This is a lesser known, and for my money under-utilized, access strategy, so it's pleasing to see the court stamp its imprimatur.  Common law access and secrecy are both presumptions, and each may be rebutted.  The court explained, "In considering individual records requests, the clerk-magistrate should balance the interests of transparency, accountability, and public confidence that might be served by making the requested records public against the risk that disclosure would unfairly result in adverse collateral consequences to the accused."

Transparency may win out, the court advised, in matters of public interest.  "[W]here the accused is a public official, the interests of transparency, accountability, and public confidence are at their apex if the conduct at issue occurred in the performance of the official's professional duties or materially bears on the official's ability to perform those duties honestly or capably."  That's a key check on clerks who might give the politically powerful a break—as long as watchdogs have an inkling to ask.

How will watchdogs know when something is amiss?  Even the court seemed somewhat concerned about the "wide disparities" in dismissed matters in the Globe's data set, e.g., probable cause with no criminal complaint issuing, one year "from a high of 43.9 percent in the Gloucester Division to a low of 0.2 percent in the Chelsea Division."  Though expressly eschewing any conclusion from the numbers, the court observed that "the magnitude of the apparent differences among courts suggests that different clerk's offices might have very different philosophies regarding the adjudication of these hearings."

To help the watchdog, the court exercised its power of superintendence over lower courts to compel electronic recordings of show cause hearings, preserving the record of judicial reconsideration in appropriate cases, and careful compilation of data about the secret hearings, including the race and gender of persons accused, and the names of attorneys in cases of private complainants.  Courts are expected to come into compliance in a year's time and to report anonymized statistics publicly.

Those measures hardly open the door to secret proceedings the way the Globe wanted, and they do nothing about the problem of clerks appointed through political connections playing an outsized role in the criminal charging process.  But the Globe got better than nothing, and maybe the door is cracked open just enough to deter dubious conduct and to squeeze some accountability out through a shaft of sunshine.

The decision against the Globe's petition for declaratory relief came from a unanimous panel of the Supreme Judicial Court, comprising six of the seven justices, and was authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.  The case is Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681 (Mass. Sept. 9, 2019).

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Boston Globe presses high court for access to secret criminal hearings

In fall 2018, the Spotlight team at The Boston Globethat Spotlight team—published a powerful exposé on "secret courts" (limited free access) in Massachusetts criminal justice.  Now a related case, argued May 7, is pending before the Commonwealth's Supreme Judicial Court.

Julian Assange supporters' sign in front of Ecuador embassy, London, Aug.
22, 2012 (by wl dreamer, CC BY-SA 3.0).
Secret courts are the zombie of First Amendment access in the judiciary. We kill them in constitutional litigation, think they're dead, and suddenly your state courts have been infected and overrun by a whole new horde.  More often than not, new secret court systems blossom to protect the rich and powerful—infamously such as one-time GE CEO Jack Welch whilst in divorce court—from the public scrutiny that attaches to the rest of us dregs, when anyone cares to look. That correlation makes secret courts' resilience a peculiarly American counterweight to our tradition of public justice in open courtrooms.

Yet I put "secret courts" in quotation marks, because it's not clear exactly what are these secret proceedings exposed by the Spotlight team.  They're called "show cause hearings" in Massachusetts law, but even the term "hearing" seems generous.  Under state law, in the absence of an arrest, a criminally accused is entitled to a "hearing" before the court clerk to determine whether charges should issue.  That means the clerk is second-guessing police before the case actually reaches court.

This happens tens of thousands of times per year, the Globe reported.  These "hearings" are not docketed and may leave no paper trail, so if charges are not filed, there is no official record left behind.  The statute that authorizes these hearings pertains principally to misdemeanors, but may be and is used for felony charges, too, in about one in eight hearings, the Globe reported.  The statute itself does not require secrecy, but that's how the process has shaken out.  The Supreme Judicial Court approved secrecy in these hearings, likening them in a 2007 decision to historically secret grand jury proceedings.  But these show cause hearings much more resemble the California preliminary criminal hearings that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1986 must be open presumptively to the public under the First Amendment.

While the ostensible purpose of this process is to protect the reputation of accused persons while weeding out frivolous claims, it seems many clerks have turned these hearings into an ADR process.  Keeping the accused's name off the records is a bargaining chip to leverage apologies, restitution, or an informal kind of probation.  Outcomes in this vein can be positive for victim and accused; there's no disputing that.  But Spotlight also documented victims of crime and violence who felt their experiences were devalued in secret leniency.  No-charge results have proven problematic especially when emboldened accused persons have gone on to commit violent offenses.

And it's worse than that.  Because as tends to happen in secret justice, persons of privilege—wealth, political clout, social connections, mere representation by a lawyer, which is not required before charges, and maybe mere whiteness, based on disparate-impact statistics, according to Globe research—has a lot to do with what charges get weeded out without a record being made.  Moreover, the Globe reported:

The state’s 68 clerk magistrates at District and Boston Municipal courts operate with enormous discretion to halt criminal proceedings even though many have slender qualifications: About 40 percent of clerks and their assistants ... lack law degrees, one clerk magistrate did not go to college at all, and another has only an associate’s degree.

Often to the frustration of police, some clerks reject charges in big numbers.  "In 2016 and 2017, nearly 82 percent of cases never made it out of a secret hearing in Chelsea," the Globe reported.

Bills pending in the legislature would require a presumption of openness in these proceedings.  But the ACLU of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau all come down on the side of privacy for accused persons.  This is an old story; the ACLU has been torn famously over access and privacy.  I don't mean to be access-absolutist about this, either.  In my view, a big part of the problem stems from our society's overuse of the criminal justice system (read: drug crime) paired with excessive, punitive consequences for criminal-justice involvement (cf. Ban the Box).

1780 Massachusetts Constitution
In the case now pending before the Supreme Judicial Court, the Globe seeks access to records of show-cause hearings in which no charges issued.  The Globe reasons that these court hearings cannot be erased utterly from the public sphere.  That logic is backed up by the Supreme Court's 1986 treatment of California preliminaries, in which media sought records after the fact of closed hearings, as well as clear circuit precedent in the intervening years condemning secret dockets as antithetical to constitutional access to information.  The Commonwealth argued on behalf of trial courts to uphold the grand-jury analogy, reasoning that properly closed hearings yield properly closed records.

I would like to see the SJC take into account that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights is more expansive than the First Amendment.  Before the First Amendment was even a thing, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution (my italics) recognized:

Art. XVIII. A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government. The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles, in the choice of their officers and representatives; and they have a right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observation of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the commonwealth.

The case is Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681.  Watch the oral argument online at Suffolk Law.