WATERBURY, Conn. A lawsuit seeking access to sealed state court cases has been dismissed by a federal judge, who ruled that Connecticut's top judicial officials don't have the authority to vacate Superior Court judges' sealing orders.
The Connecticut Law Tribune and the Hartford Courant filed suit earlier this year seeking information about the sealed cases.
At issue were about 10,000 sealed civil cases and an unknown number of Level 1 or "super-sealed" cases files that are so secret their existence cannot officially be acknowledged.
Using a little-known quirk in court procedure, court officials reportedly super-sealed cases involving such defendants as saxophonist Clarence Clemons and Boston Celtics star Vin Baker.
The practice was first reported by The Connecticut Law Tribune last December. It drew criticism from editorial boards, legislators and many lawyers, in part because the rich, famous and powerful were among its beneficiaries.
U.S. District Judge Gerard L. Goettel ruled in Waterbury this week that the newspapers were essentially asking two top state court administrators to overturn sealing orders entered by the Superior Court judges who presided over the cases. Goettel said the defendants, Chief Court Administrator Joseph Pellegrino and state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Sullivan, lacked the authority to vacate the sealing orders.
The news outlets have argued that they were not seeking to have any orders overturned or cases unsealed. Their lawyers said they merely sought the disclosure of "docket sheets," a limited catalog of activity in each case. With those, they said, they could decide whether and how to contest the sealing of a particular case file.
The state had argued that the lawsuit amounted to an attempted "end run" around the judges. Lawyers for both newspapers said they would likely appeal.
"The judge is basically saying that neither of these judges has the authority to set aside the other judges' sealing orders," Hartford Courant lawyer Ralph G. Elliot said, "but the problem is there isn't a shred of evidence that any of the judges issued sealing orders in the first place because we don't have access to these files."
Connecticut Law Tribune lawyer Daniel J. Klau said the publications were trapped in a Catch-22.
"If you accept Judge Goettel's decision as correct," Klau said, "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 10,000 cases where you know the docket number and no other information. So for all intents and purposes, there's no remedy, according to Judge Goettel."
Maureen Cox a lawyer with Carmody & Torrance in Waterbury, the firm that represented the state in the case said the judicial department was pleased that the ruling recognized "a balance between the public's right to access and the rights of parties to litigation to privacy."
The state's estimate of the number of Level 1 cases has fluctuated. By its count, 54 cases were on Level 1 status in May; the state has said most of those have since been moved to Level 2 status: The files remain sealed, but the party names are in the captions.