As the federal trial court in Washington works to correct years of clerical errors, dozens of unsealed court documents that were not easily accessible in the past are being published online for the first time.
The court began a review earlier this year into how unsealed documents remained hidden from the public. U.S. District Senior Judge Royce Lamberth, who is leading the inquiry, said today the court is still reviewing cases dating back to 2005. In the meantime, he said, the court will make documents and other information available online as the information is discovered.
The documents now available include affidavits for search warrants and other filings from high-profile cases such as the criminal prosecution of former Louisiana congressman William Jefferson and the investigation into anthrax attacks in 2001.
The unsealed documents are from sealed cases that aren’t otherwise searchable by the public. The cases include criminal matters as well as what are known as magistrate and miscellaneous cases, which can involve search warrant applications and grand jury proceedings.
After the court switched to an electronic filing system, Lamberth said the clerk's office did not take steps to make unsealed documents easily accessible by the public. A person requesting the information would have to know what case to ask about, he said, which would be virtually impossible for a sealed matter.
Before the court started using electronic filing in the early 2000s, reporters and members of the public could check for recently unsealed documents in a box in the clerk's office, Lamberth said. The court will also be posting judicial orders unsealing full case records.
Lamberth, the immediate past chief judge of Washington’s federal trial court, began the investigation after learning in May that unsealed documents in a high-profile government leaks case were never placed on the public docket.
The leaks case, which is not sealed, involved Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former government adviser charged with leaking classified information about North Korea. As part of the investigation, the government sought a search warrant for Fox News reporter James Rosen's emails.
Lamberth issued a sealed opinion in September 2010 ruling the government was not required to give notice to the subscriber of an email account that was the subject of a search warrant-in that case, Rosen. About a month later, a redacted version of the opinion was supposed to be placed on the public docket, but, according to a public apology Lamberth issued in May, it was not.
In November 2011, redacted versions of the search warrant and other related documents were also supposed to be put on the public docket. It never happened. Lamberth said the errors came to his attention this year after his office fielded questions from the press about the documents. In an interview at the time, Lamberth said it appeared the mistakes were due to human error in the clerk's office.
Lamberth said today that there was no evidence of any "nefarious" conduct in the clerks' office. "The system was a series of shortcuts that didn't accomplish what the goal should have been," he said. As the clerk's office continues searching sealed cases for information that should have been made public, he said he will be checking as well.
Once a search warrant is returned—the search is executed and law enforcement inventories what was seized—that information is considered public unless the presiding judge enters an order sealing it. Under the court's new system, search warrant information will be posted online automatically in the absence of a sealing order. Other unsealed documents made available include court orders, opinions, transcripts and motions.
The documents will remain accessible for six months. The court is looking into whether the information can then be archived.
The new database of unsealed filings includes more than 20 documents from the investigation into former Louisiana congressman William Jefferson, from the application for a warrant to search Jefferson's congressional office to the legal fight over whether the government had to return what it seized. Jefferson was found guilty of corruption charges by a federal jury in Virginia.
The database also lists a series of search warrant applications from the government's investigation into Dr. Bruce Ivins, an Army scientist suspected of carrying out anthrax attacks by mail in 2001.