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National Crime Victim Law Institute

Sparman v. Edwards, 325 F. Supp. 3d 317 (E.D.N.Y. 2018)

January 24, 2019

Defendant sought federal habeas relief after his New York rape convictions were upheld on appeal.  Over 20 years later, anonymous intervenors (the rape victims, who are his nieces and were minors at the time of the rapes) moved to seal the case file and remove the opinion granting the petition from publication, stating that the availability of the habeas petition had caused them great emotional distress.  The court began its opinion by noting that “[w]hether to seal an opinion 20 years after its entry on the public docket is, essentially, an academic exercise because, as intervenors know all too well, it has already been widely circulated in the public domain.”  The court noted that 18 U.S.C. § 3509 was designed to balance concerns for privacy against the right of public access to judicial proceedings and filings, and that the offending opinion could have been sealed or redacted to protect the privacy of the victims at the time of publication.   However, “[u]nless we can unring the bell by clawing back the opinion, we are left to deal with a right of public access firmly rooted in our nation’s history.”  “Put another way, although 18 U.S.C. 3509(d)(2) does mandate that ‘all papers to be filed in court that disclose the name of or any other information concerning a child shall be filed under seal,’ it does not create a procedure for the sealing of documents that, for whatever reason, were not sealed, became available publicly and were widely circulated.”  The court continued, explaining that to the extent that the intervenors sought an order requiring the removal of the offending opinion from publicly available websites and the print version of the Federal Supplement, “the First Amendment bars this Court from awarding such relief.”  Further, the court found that the use of the injunctive powers of federal courts to suppress any publication is highly disfavored and requires exceedingly persuasive justification.  The victims argued that their right to keep private the information that should have been shielded in the first place should enjoin the publication.  “However, no matter how sympathetic the cause, given the strong presumption of access to judicial documents, and the most critical fact that the offending opinion had been publicly available for over 20 years, the Court cannot order removal of the opinion from publication.”  “Succinctly, with tens of thousands of print copies in circulation and the ubiquitous availability of the Federal Supplement online, the Court is without the physical ability to order a complete claw back of the opinion. Assuming, for argument’s sake only, that the Court could, if it did have that power, without that ability and recognizing that copies would continue to circulate, the Court cannot conclude that there is an adequate constitutional justification for enjoining further publication of the offending opinion, either online or in any reprints of the Federal Supplement. Derivatively, with these versions of the opinion already publicly available, the last vestige of hope for sealing the copy in the public file of the Court is also lost for the reasons discussed above. Intervenors’ motion fails as a result.”