OPEN COURTS -- Brian Baxter reports for The AmLaw Daily that four press organizations are suing for access to the transcript of a civil lawsuit tried almost entirely behind closed doors in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles recently—an almost unheard of use of judicial secrecy outside the realm of national security.
After being arrested in 2001 for his role in a plot to bomb a California mosque and the office of Lebanese American congressman Darrell Issa, former Jewish Defense League activist Earl Krugel pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and received a 20-year prison sentence.
While serving that sentence at a medium-security federal prison in Phoenix he was murdered while exercising in a prison rec yard in November 2005. David Jennings, a known white supremacist, bludgeoned Krugel to death by hitting him five times in the head with a concrete paving stone.
A year later Krugel's widow, Lola, sued the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act seeking damages for the prison authorities' failure to classify Jennings as a risk to other prisoners and confine him to a higher-security facility. According to reports at the time, Krugel had been transferred to the Phoenix prison just three days before his death.
But unlike most other civil suits, the two-day bench trial in July before U.S. district court judge Stephen Wilson in Los Angeles was held almost entirely in secret. Wilson ruled in favor of the government, but that decision is also under seal.
"It's quite remarkable, I don't think I've seen anything like it in my 25 plus years of practice," says Kelli Sager, media chair at Davis Wright Tremaine who is representing four media groups that filed a motion to intervene on Tuesday seeking access to the trial transcript: the Los Angeles Times, AP, California Newspaper Publishers Association and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"Other than hearing that the ruling was for the government, we can't find out why," Sager says. "His order dismissing part of the claims against the government was publicly available and is attached to our papers."
According to the Los Angeles Times, which wrote extensively about the case last month when Wilson ordered the courtroom closed, the secrecy is intended to protect Bureau of Prisons policies regarding rooting out inmates with gang affiliations and preventing them from harming others.