Chief Federal Judge Federico Moreno in Miami, bucking the wishes of the U.S. Department of Justice, has ordered all plea agreements to be posted online, reports the National Law Journal. The issue of whether plea agreements should be publicly available, able to be viewed electronically through the PACER system, is controversial, pitting prosecutors against defense lawyers and First Amendment advocates. In 2007, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Judicial Conference to restrict electronic access to plea and cooperation agreements in order to keep information about cooperating witnesses secret.
The Justice Department was concerned about a Web site, Whosarat.com, which was posting information about all cooperators in federal cases. “We are witnessing the rise of a new cottage industry engaged in republishing court filings about cooperators on Web sites such as whosarat.com for the clear purpose of witness intimidation, retaliation and harassment,” said the department. Defense attorneys, First Amendment advocates, and the federal public defender’s office protested, arguing that the public’s right to know about the court system was being impaired. Said Moreno: “The public’s interest in access must prevail in this instance and  restricting access to all plea agreements is overly broad. Other means are available to the prosecution and defense to insure that the public record does not contain information about cooperation agreements in those instance where the interests of safety or other considerations require different treatment.” Judges can still seal plea agreements in individual cases.