Washington, D.C.’s highest state-level court has warned judges that they must meet strict standards before barring public access to criminal hearings or records. The Washington Post said it happened last week in a case filed by the D.C. Public Defender Service, which complained about an “endemic” disregard for “the public’s right of access” to proceedings. The public defender service says that almost 200 D.C. Superior Court cases are entirely under seal, along with an unknown number sealed to varying degrees.
The Public Defender Service went to D.C. Court of Appeals after a Superior Court judge ejected one of its lawyers from a recent hearing without an explanation or an opportunity to challenge the decision. Prosecutors, who sought to close the hearing, have acknowledged that they were wrong in this instance, and the judge has indicated that he will unseal the case. Overall, the number of cases under seal and the conduct of the judge and prosecutor in the case in question suggested “routine and flagrant” disregard for the First Amendment, the Public Defender Service declared. The U.S. Supreme Court has established that open court proceedings are essential in ensuring the integrity and accountability of the criminal justice system.