Crime & Courts

Court may lift secrecy in federal cases in Western NC

Court records unsealed earlier this year revealed former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon suffered with depression and anxiety before his sentencing for taking bribes.
Court records unsealed earlier this year revealed former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon suffered with depression and anxiety before his sentencing for taking bribes. The Charlotte Observer

U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler and other legal officials will review an unusual local rule that shields some information about a defendant’s sentence from public view.

The move comes after news organizations challenged the practice and obtained records for former CIA Director David Petraeus and former Mayor Patrick Cannon.

A committee headed by Keesler will examine whether the federal court district covering Charlotte and Western North Carolina should allow public access to a defendant’s letters of support and sentencing memorandum.

Those records detail the circumstances and legal arguments judges consider when they determine a defendant’s punishment. Experts say the documents are routinely released by federal courts around the country to promote transparency, deter crime and inform policy decisions by lawmakers.

But in Western North Carolina, the records are sealed under a long-standing rule that received little notice until recently.

Judges released sentencing documents for Petraeus and Cannon this year after The Charlotte Observer and other media organizations took legal action to obtain the information. But those separate rulings did not affect other cases, and the court continues to seal records.

“You have to honor the public’s right to know, but there are times when things should be sealed for a certain period of time,” Keesler said. “There is always a balance. Maybe our rules didn’t strike the balance appropriately.”

Some court officials, former prosecutors and defense attorneys say the existing rule protects informants who cooperate with law enforcement. The policy also keeps hidden private information about a defendant’s health, family and finances.

News organizations and some attorneys say the practice in Western North Carolina goes too far. They said they could not list another federal court district where the records were sealed without authorization from a judge.

Jon Buchan, an attorney representing the Observer in the Cannon case, said he is pleased the court rules committee will review the policy.

“The Petraeus and Cannon cases were a reminder that the practice of automatically sealing sentencing memoranda and letters of support is inconsistent with the First Amendment principle that the public should know the basis for the decisions our judges make,” Buchan said.

Hannah Bloch-Wehba of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, one of the media organizations that asked the court to release the Petraeus sentencing memorandum, said the local rule committee’s decision could have far-reaching impact on public access to the court.

“It is too bad the rule was in place this long,” Bloch-Wehba said. “It is great they recognized it posed a threat to transparency.”

Re-thinking the rules

Critics say celebrity and political connections kept Petraeus out of prison. Petraeus, once the nation’s top military commander, was charged with sharing government secrets with his biographer and former lover, Paula Broadwell.

In an agreement with prosecutors, Petraeus agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $40,000 fine. Keesler increased the fine to $100,000. He said he raised the fine to reflect the seriousness of the offense.

The sentence drew sharp criticism since other lesser-known figures have received prison terms for divulging secrets.

Keesler ordered the records released after the Observer and eight other media organizations filed a court motion to unseal them.

Documents released in June showed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and three U.S. senators were among 34 people who wrote letters on Petraeus’ behalf.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon is serving a 44-month prison sentence for accepting more than $50,000 from undercover FBI agents. The Observer filed a court motion in May seeking to unseal his sentencing memorandum documents, including letters of support.

In June, U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney ordered the sentencing memorandum and letters of support released. They revealed that according to his lawyers, Cannon was suffering from depression and anxiety and was self-medicating with alcohol before his sentencing.

Keesler said the intense media interest in the Petraeus and Cannon cases led court officials to consider changing the rules.

During the sentencing hearing for Petraeus, the judge recalled mentioning the letters of support.

“Understandably,” Keesler said, “people were curious about the letters.”

Clearing confusion

Western North Carolina federal court rules rarely change.

An appointed rules committee makes recommendations about policy. A committee hasn’t been appointed since officials met in 2012.

The panel’s recommendations are sent to a judicial board, which decides whether to accept or reject them. If ideas are adopted, they are sent to the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. attorney’s office for final approval, which is typically routine.

Frank Johns, the clerk of court for the Western District of North Carolina, said officials began sealing sentencing memorandums around 2002.

The rules committee, which will meet in November, may help bring clarity, Johns said.

“It is a general effort to amend, revise and eliminate confusion,” Johns said. “We all want it clarified.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027