Hartford Business Journal Editorial – Lost Opportunity

Hartford Business Journal Editorial

Lost Opportunity

January 25, 2010

The Connecticut Supreme Court last week missed an opportunity to take a stand against secret court dockets.

In a 7-0 ruling, the seven justices unanimously affirmed the Hartford Superior Court’s decision against Vincent Valvo, a former Hartford Business Journal editor and freedom of information advocate, who sought access to court dockets.

Valvo and co-plaintiff, the Connecticut Council for the Freedom of Information (CCFOI), argued that court dockets should be subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Instead of addressing the lawsuit’s primary argument — that the public should have access to basic information about the status of cases and the identity of its parties — the justices ruled on a technicality, stating that claims cannot be settled by law or a court “because no practical relief is available.”

While the judiciary should be credited for releasing all but five secret court dockets, it had a chance to promote confidence in how the state’s judicial branch of government operates.

The public needs these assurances, particularly because the judiciary routinely sealed cases for years, and those case records disappeared from court dockets.

When the media exposed the practice in 2003, it was discovered that there were more than 150 super-secret cases.

While the Connecticut Supreme Court believes it cannot offer “practical relief” to Valvo and CCFOI, it has in effect thrown its hands up in the air, citing another Connecticut court ruling that maintains that state’s judicial administrators do not have the authority to unseal files ordered by other judges, regardless of whether such files are subject to the state’s FOI Act.

So who does have the authority?

Essentially, this ruling allows the state’s judiciary to continue to keep secret files if judges so decide.

The ruling against Valvo is a ruling against judicial openness.

Valvo said it best: “The justices are saying that the court docket is available only as long as judges want it to be.”