A judge and legal officials will review an unusual North Carolina court rule that shields some information about a defendant's sentence from public view, reports the Charlotte Observer. The move comes after news organizations challenged the practice and obtained records for former CIA Director David Petraeus and former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon. A committee headed by U.S. Magistrate David Keesler will examine whether the federal court covering Charlotte and Western North Carolina should allow public access to a defendant's letters of support and sentencing memorandum. Those records detail the circumstances and legal arguments judges consider when they determine a defendant's punishment. Experts say the documents are routinely released by federal courts around the U.S. to promote transparency, deter crime and inform policy decisions by lawmakers.
In Western North Carolina, the records are sealed under a long-standing rule. Judges released sentencing documents for Petraeus and Cannon this year after the Observer and other media took legal action to obtain the information Those rulings did not affect other cases, and the court continues to seal records. “You have to honor the public's right to know, but there are times when things should be sealed for a certain period of time,” Keesler said. “There is always a balance. Maybe our rules didn't strike the balance appropriately.” Some court officials, former prosecutors and defense attorneys say the rule protects informants who cooperate with law enforcement. It also hides private information about a defendant's health, family and finances. Hannah Bloch-Wehba of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, one of the media organizations that asked for the Petraeus sentencing memorandum, said the local rule committee's decision could have far-reaching impact on public access to the court.