Ohio Supreme Court Allows Public Access to Case Records in Criminal Prosecution

The Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion about public records in criminal prosecutions.  The court held that public access to court records would not result in publicity that could lead to the inability of a defendant to receive a fair trial.

The case is State ex rel. Vindicator Printing Co. v. Wolff, No. 2012-Ohio-3328. (July 25, 2012).

Facts:  In July 2010, a grand jury returned a 73-count indictment charging seven persons, including current and former public officials, and three organizations with felony and misdemeanor charges, including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, conspiracy, perjury, bribery, money laundering, tampering with records, disclosure of confidential information, conflict of interest, filing a false financial-disclosure statement, and soliciting or accepting improper compensation.

As a result of pre-trail publicity, the judge ordered that all filings in the case “shall be under seal with the exception of filings that are clearly procedural and cannot possibly implicate Defendants’ concern about receiving a fair trial.”  The judge issued a supplemental order in which he explained that his “filing under seal protocol” was based on the “significant media coverage” that the criminal cases had attracted and his obligation “to balance the right of the defendants to a fair trial and the right of the public to be informed of these proceedings through the media or through personal examination of the record.”  The judge was concerned with whether “fair and impartial potential jurors can be found . . . i.e., potential jurors without preconceived notions of how this case should be decided that they cannot set aside due to pretrial publicity.”

A newspaper and television station submitted to the judge and the Mahoning County clerk of courts requests to inspect and copy filings and documents submitted to the court in the criminal cases, including those that had been filed under seal.  When relators were not provided access to some of the requested records, they filed a motion for an order vacating the sealing orders. The maintained some records under seal and continued a protocol in which the state would submit to defense counsel, prior to filing, any document that “can be reasonably expected to trigger a concern on the part of  defense counsel that publication of the document will prejudice the impaneling  of an impartial jury.”

The newspaper and television station filed for a writ of mandamus to compel the judge to release all records filed with the clerk of courts in the underlying criminal cases and a writ of prohibition to prohibit him from presumptively closing any proceedings or sealing any documents filed with or otherwise provided to the court.

The newspaper and television station claimed entitlement to the sealed records based on the Rules of Superintendence, the Public Records Act, the United States and Ohio Constitutions, and the common law.  The Ohio Supreme Court decided the case based on the Rules of Superintendence, which provide for public access to court records.  Under these Rules, “[c]ourt records are presumed open to public access.”  The court explained that “to qualify as a case document that is afforded the presumption of openness for court records, the document or information contained in a document must merely be ‘submitted to a court or filed with a clerk of court in a judicial action or proceeding’ and not be subject to the specified exclusions.”

The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the claim that access the the records would substantially prejudice the defendants’ right to a fair trial. The court said:  “There was not clear and convincing evidence to establish that the  prejudicial effect of pretrial publicity generated by public access to the [records] would prevent them from  receiving a fair trial.”  The court added:  “the constitutional right of the defendants to a fair trial can be protected by the traditional methods of voir dire, continuances, changes of venue, jury instructions, or sequestration of the jury.”

 

If you have questions about this issue, or if you need an Ohio Criminal Defense Lawyer for your Ohio criminal appeal or other post-conviction matter, please visit the  Appeals Section of J. Adam Engel, LLC.

 

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