The chief judge of Washington's federal district court said he expects the court will have to review hundreds of arrest and search warrant dockets after learning this week that the clerk's office failed to publicly file an unsealed search warrant in a high-profile government leaks case.
In an order entered today, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth apologized for a series of administrative errors that resulted in the continued secrecy of materials that had been previously unsealed in the case against Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former government adviser accused of leaking classified information about North Korea. The order was first reported by The Washington Post. As part of the leaks investigation, prosecutors obtained a search warrant to review Fox News reporter James Rosen's e-mails.
In an interview today, Lamberth said the mistakes were the result of human error in the clerk's office and he had no sense yet of whether similar problems occurred in other cases. "We're a public institution, we're accountable to the public," Lamberth said. "We shouldn't allow this to happen."
He said the court was investigating the errors, but his understanding was supervisors who were supposed to make sure court orders were carried out failed to do so. "The best explanation I can get is, they were busy," he said, adding he was "embarrassed" by the situation.
The clerk of the court, Angela Caesar, could not immediately be reached this afternoon.
Lamberth's order identified a series of administrative errors in Kim's case. In September 2010, Lamberth issued a sealed opinion finding the government was not required to give Rosen—or any subscriber whose email account was the subject of a search warrant under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act—notice of the search warrant.
A redacted version of the opinion was supposed to be made public two months later, but was instead filed under seal. Lamberth said he didn't learn of the error until reporters asked about it this week.
Unsealed, redacted versions of the search warrant for Rosen's e-mails and other related materials were supposed to be entered on the public docket in November 2011, but weren't properly filed until May 16, after the clerk's office received media inquiries.
Lamberth's order referenced two other cases in which a search warrant and other materials were supposed to be entered on the public docket and were not. A search of those cases showed they were still sealed as of this afternoon. A court representative said they would become available tomorrow.
The errors prompted Lamberth to request that the court's website include a section where the public could review unsealed search and arrest warrants; he said he hoped it would go up within the next few days. Lamberth said hard copies of warrants used to be available for review in the clerk's office, but when the court switched to an electronic filing system provisions weren't made to make them easily available online.
Lamberth said he's considering other options to make warrants more accessible, such as finding a way to marry the unique case numbers entered for warrant matters with the case numbers for related criminal proceedings.
As for the review of past warrant dockets to check for similar mistakes, Lamberth said he wasn't sure how the court would handle it, but thought it was necessary. "I think we have to do that, when we screwed up this badly," he said.