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MONDAY, MARCH 6, 2006
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EDITORIAL

Court secrecy endangers defendants and the public

An Associated Press investigation finds that the federal courts are becoming more secretive with records of criminal cases.

Nearly all records are being kept secret for more than 5,000 defendants whose court cases were concluded during the last three years, AP found. In 2003, nearly 85,000 cases were closed and the records of 952 of them — 1.1 percent — remain mostly sealed. In 2005, the percentage was up to 2.7 percent — 2,390 out of more than 87,000 cases.

Sometimes legitimate reasons exist to seal case files temporarily, such as the need to protect defendants who are also government witnesses. But the need for permanent secrecy is much more questionable in light of the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of public trials and the need for the people to know what their courts are doing.

Court secrecy makes our representative government look like some dictatorship that hides its actions to avoid accountability. How will the people judge whether the courts are meting out justice and protecting them if they don't know what the courts are doing?

Federal prosecutors and judges ought to join defense attorneys in minimizing secrecy and unsealing any secret records at the earliest possible date.

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