No First Amendment Right of Public Access to Court Documents in Death Penalty Cases

In general, the public has a First Amendment right to access court documents in both civil and criminal cases.

Larry Flynt lives in Missouri and tried to access confidential (or “sealed”) court records in a death-penalty case.  Specifically, he wanted access to documents about Missouri’s death-penalty protocol and medical members of its execution team, questioning those members’ medical credentials.  The district court—wanting to hear Missouri’s justification for keeping those documents sealed—ordered the state to file a brief explaining their reasons and why they could not release redacted versions of the documents.

Executions Lawsuit
The death chamber in Bonne Terre, Missouri. (James A. Finley/AP)

Ironically, the state’s brief was also filed under seal, leaving Flynt in the dark as to its existence or content.  Relying on the state’s brief, the district court decided that Flynt could not be granted access to the documents and that redaction was not feasible.  Seven months later, while preparing his appeal, Flynt found out about the state’s sealed brief and asked to see it.  The district court said no, and Flynt appealed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals—arguing that he should be able to access both the state’s brief and the original death-penalty documents that got his case started.

The Eight Circuit ruled for the state and said that public disclosure of the members of the state’s execution team or death-penalty documents would impede Missouri’s ability to carry out lawful death sentences in the future.  The Court also ruled that Flynt could not access the state’s brief because disclosure of that brief would undermine the medical members’ privacy and that redaction of that brief too was not feasible.  Flynt’s goal–reviewing the credentials of these members–put him in direct conflict with the state’s interest in protecting those members’ privacy.  And so while court records generally must be public, this is one instance in which court records can remain confidential.

Case: Flynt v. Lombardi, No. 16-1295 (8th Cir. Mar. 13, 2018) (opinion here)

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