The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit offered an unusual rationale today when it agreed to seal its courtroom during an upcoming oral argument. Apparently the judges were afraid somebody would recognize one of the lawyers.
The suit, District of Columbia v. John Doe, is a special education case involving an anonymous child whose lawyer also happens to be his mother. According to a motion granted by the court, she’s a familiar face to many lawyers who practice in the courthouse.
“If the courtroom remains open to the public during oral argument, the identity of Doe may be disclosed,” says the motion. Transcripts of the oral argument, scheduled for April 16, will also be sealed.
The per curiam decision by Judges Thomas Griffith and David Tatel drew a dissent from Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, who noted in a footnote that she would have denied the motion to seal.
So what are the details of this too-hot-for-the-public piece of litigation? In March 2004, the child in the case, then a sixth-grade special education student at Washington’s Janney Elementary School, was handed a 54-day suspension for his misbehavior in class. After a series of hearings, the suspension was knocked down to 11 days. As the prevailing party, the child’s lawyer/mother asked the District for $30,000 in legal fees.
The school system appealed the hearing officer’s decision to limit the suspension to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia. The judge eventually ruled for the city, finding that the hearing officer had overstepped his authority. That decision is now before the circuit for review.