Appellate Judges

If you want to Talk to a Judge, Head for the Beach House, not the Court House

Eugene Volokh; This First Amendment right of access extends to “documents and records that pertain to a proceeding in which one or more parties seek to disqualify a judge for bias. Application of Nat’l Broadcasting, Inc., 828 F.2d at 345, because “experience and logic” support such a right, id. at 344 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

LIT COMMENTARY

We read recently that Texas Courts are employing full time security staff, wherein part of the duties includes scrubbing all permanent data off the web searches pertaining to the Judges personal information. Indeed, there was an official request to increase that budget in Texas not that long ago. There are laws that do allow some personal records and data to be hidden, e.g. property tax records. That said, it appears Texas, as usual, is writing it’s own version of the Constitution, when reading Volokh’s motion (see article below). He argues that is a direct violation of the First Amendment.

At LIT, we completely understand security is a concern, and we recognize judges are – and have been – targeted by some less than savory characters or those with perhaps a mental illness in the past. At LIT, we do not condone acts of violence or threats in any way against judges or justices or their support staff.

However, there also needs to be a system to allow for the public to follow the money, as it were.

In particular, where Judges are either (i) being untruthful on their financial disclosure forms, or (ii) are not disclosing what they should on these required annual financial disclosures, or (iii) where they are presiding on cases where they should have recused.

Certainly, from LIT’s experience, there’s a lot of judges with second homes, usually at the beach and the article below confirms our research. Judges are people and they, like anyone, are entitled to live their best lives. However, they elected to become a public figure – it was a personal choice, one which they made knowing the pros and cons well in advance.

The reality is, that position should not and does not include a 24/7 Secret Service detail or scrubbing of personal data from the internet when they are deciding what happens to the citizens and non-citizens who come before their court(s).

This is especially true in these times, as corruption in the judiciary is at an all-time record, in our opinion.

In summary, if the second home is a listed financial asset on their annual return, then judges should not be objecting to, or sealing documents in any related legal proceedings.

Judge who sealed documents about her beach property gets reversed by appeals court

Originally published; Feb 12, 2020

A Connecticut appeals court has vacated a judge’s order sealing two documents about a beach property that she owned in Maine after a law professor stepped in to argue for their release.

Judge Sheila Ozalis had sealed the documents last month after expressing concern that exposing the address of her home in Maine posed a security issue, the Hartford Courant reports (article reprinted below).

The appeals court issued its order last Friday, and the documents were unsealed Monday.

The newly unsealed documents were filed by lawyer David Hardy, who said Ozalis shouldn’t preside in a beach-access case in Branford, Connecticut.

Hardy argued in the unsealed motion and brief that Ozalis had a conflict because her Maine home was in an area where a similar lawsuit was filed. Ozalis wasn’t involved in the Maine litigation.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, had sought release of the documents in a petition for review that he excerpted on his blog, the Volokh Conspiracy (article reprinted below).

According to the Hartford Courant, Volokh “has jetted around the country for years, intervening and filing briefs in a wide variety of cases and locales. He often jumps into matters of free speech and public access to court proceedings.”

Volokh told the Connecticut appeals court that he would like to write about the case “in an informed way,” but he couldn’t do it because of the sealed documents.

Connecticut has a presumption that court documents are open to the public, a presumption that is “anchored in the First Amendment,” Volokh argued.

A court filing says a settlement in the underlying case was reached Feb. 5, although it still needs approval by some entities.

Judge Orders Heavy Redaction of Motion to Recuse

If a motion to recuse argues that the judge has a conflict of interest because she owns particular property, can the judge order the redaction of all the details related to the location of the property?

Originally Published Feb 4, 2020

Friday morning, I’ll be in Connecticut, arguing in Wheeler v. Cosgrove, an interesting unsealing case before the Connecticut Appellate Court. (Under Connecticut rules, motions to unseal generally go right up to the Appellate Court, rather than to the court that did the sealing.) Here’s the heart of my petition for review; no opposition has been filed, though it’s still possible that someone will appear to argue against me orally.

* * *

[I.] Brief History of the Case

[A.] On Jan. 15, 2020, a party moved to disqualify Judge Sheila Ozalis, who is presiding in this case. The same day, Judge Ozalis sealed the motion (Doc. 208.00) and accompanying brief (Doc. 209.00), apparently sua sponte, Tr. 51, reasoning (in Docs. 208.10 & 209.10, App. A024-A025) that:

(1) The document contains unnecessary, sensitive material that is entitled to remain confidential; and

(2) The individual’s privacy interest in the information in this document overrides the public’s interest in viewing the material.

(3) There is no reasonable alternative to protect the individual’s privacy interest.

[B.] On Jan. 17, 2020, Judge Robert E. Young issued a Notice Order to Show Cause (Doc. 212.00) ordering David S. Hardy, counsel for Interested Party Barbara Saggese, to appear and show cause on Jan. 21, 2020 “why he should not be disciplined” for filing the motion with “allegations of bias as well as personal and personally identifying information of Judge Sheila A. Ozalis.”

In particular, the Order to Show Cause stated that,

the Court shall consider, in relation to the Rules of Professional Conduct listed above, whether attorney Hardy has made statements he knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity concerning the integrity of a judge; violated or attempted to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assisted or induced another to do so, or did so [through] the acts of another; and/or engaged in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice in attempting to intimidate or harass a judge by posting her personal information on a website which is accessible to the public.

The initial Jan. 21, 2020 hearing took place while the motion to disqualify and the accompanying memorandum were still entirely sealed. (The hearing was continued to Jan. 27, 2020, but has since been taken off calendar, Doc. 224.00.)

On Jan. 17, 2020, Judge Ozalis also issued an order requiring Mr. Hardy to “submit a redacted copy of the document within 10 days of this order removing all photos, addresses, assessor’s cards and maps from the Motion and Memorandum” (Doc. 208.30, App. A027). The order was captioned “ORDER REGARDING: 01/15/2020 208.00 MOTION FOR DISQUALIFICATION OF JUDICIAL AUTHORITY PB 1-23,” and did not expressly cite the 209.00 memorandum; but it appears to have contemplated the filing of a redacted memorandum as well.

[C.] On Jan. 27, 2020, Mr. Hardy filed a redacted Motion to Disqualify and Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Disqualify (Doc. 227.00, App. A028-A144).

[II.] Specific Facts Upon Which Petitioner Relies

Eugene Volokh is Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law. He writes often on First Amendment law, both in law review articles and on his weblog, The Volokh Conspiracy, which is now published at the Reason Magazine site, https://reason.com/volokh. In particular, he often writes about sealing (see, e.g., https://reason.com/tag/right-of-access/), sometimes about judicial disqualification (see, e.g., https://reason.com/volokh/2016/06/03/no-trump-cant-get-a-mexican-am), and sometimes about disciplinary charges brought against lawyers (see, e.g., https://reason.com/2018/01/29/arizona-bar-accuses-lawyers-of-suing-fak/). He would like to write about the controversy in this case, but he is unable to do so in an informed way, precisely because so much of the motion for disqualification and its supporting brief are sealed.

[III.] Legal Basis

“The rationale underlying the presumption [of public access to court documents] is straightforward: Public monitoring of the judicial process through open court proceedings and records enhances confidence in the judicial system by ensuring that justice is administered equitably and in accordance with established procedures.” Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., 292 Conn. 1, 34-35 (2009). The rules providing for disqualification of judges likewise aim to protect “judicial integrity” and “confidence in the judiciary.” Joyner v. Comm’r of Correction, 55 Conn. App. 602, 612 (1999).

But the public cannot evaluate decisions about disqualification without understanding the basis for the motion for disqualification. Perhaps the motion in this case was unfounded, and even unethical—but the public cannot confidently accept the denial of the motion if key facts on which the motion relies are redacted.

“The background, experience, and associations of the judge are important factors in any trial. When a judge’s impartiality is questioned it strengthens the judicial process for the public to be informed of how the issue is approached and decided.” Application of Nat’l Broadcasting, Inc., 828 F.2d 340, 345 (6th Cir. 1987).

[A.] The motion to disqualify, and the accompanying memorandum, are covered by the presumption of public access

“Except as otherwise provided by law, there shall be a presumption that documents filed with the court shall be available to the public.” PB § 11-20A(a). This extends to all “judicial documents, meaning any document filed with the court that the court reasonably could rely on in support of its adjudicatory function,” Rosado, 292 Conn. at 30—a “broad definition of judicial documents,” id. at 48.

That definition covers documents seeking judicial disqualification, because the decision whether a judge should step aside is necessarily part of the court’s “adjudicatory function.” Indeed, that decision bears directly on all subsequent steps in the adjudicative process.

This presumption is also anchored in the First Amendment. There is a First Amendment right of access to certain kinds of motions and briefs filed in civil cases, and not just in criminal cases. E.g.Lugosch v. Pyramid Co. of Onondaga, 435 F.3d 110, 120 (2d Cir. 2006) (cited favorably by State v. Komisarjevsky, 302 Conn. 162, 175 n.12 (2011), as showing how “federal courts” “determine whether a ‘qualified’ first amendment right to access exists”).

Indeed, “‘[a]ccess to written documents filed in connection with pretrial motions is particularly important in the situation … where no hearing is held and the court’s ruling is based solely on the motion papers.'” Id. at 124 (citation omitted).

This First Amendment right of access extends to “documents and records that pertain to a proceeding in which one or more parties seek to disqualify a judge for bias,” Application of Nat’l Broadcasting, Inc., 828 F.2d at 345, because “experience and logic” support such a right, id. at 344 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

It likewise applies to civil cases, under the reasoning of Lugosch.

[B.] This presumption does not appear to be rebutted here

The presumption of public access can be “outweighed by countervailing considerations, such as certain privacy concerns,” Rosado, 292 Conn. at 35. Judge Ozalis appeared to be concerned about the privacy of information about real estate that she owns, and demanded the redaction of “photos, addresses, assessor’s cards and maps from the Motion and Memorandum.” Doc. 208.30.

But when a motion to disqualify is based on the judge’s ownership interest in certain real estate, the public must be able to learn the location of that property, so as to be able to effectively understand and investigate the merits of the motion.

As it is, the redacted motion omits not just the property address but also the details (such as any caption or case number) for an earlier case that supposedly related to the property. Moreover, the Exhibits attached to Barbara Saggese’s affidavit, which had accompanied the Motion to Disqualify—about 80 pages in all, App. A049-A136—are almost entirely redacted. The redactions thus interfere with the public’s ability to understand the nature and magnitude of any alleged conflict.

Nor is this information the sort of highly private, personal information that would warrant sealing. “[A]ssessor’s cards and maps” seem likely to be public records, open to all for inspection. Indeed, Ms. Saggese stated that Exhibit A to her affidavit (one of the exhibits that has been entirely redacted) is a “publicly available assessor’s property card.” Aff. of Barbara J. Saggese at ¶ 2.a (attached to Doc. 227.00 exh. 1, App. A044).

Likewise, the caption of the litigation over that property seems almost certainly to be a matter of public record, as are the “judicial decisions and pleadings from the [redacted] case,” Saggese Aff. ¶ 2.c, App. A045 (stating that the now-redacted Exhibit C to the affidavit contained such documents). Even photographs of the property may be public information if they are posted online as advertisements for renting the property. See Saggese Aff. at ¶ 2.f, App. A045 (stating that the now-redacted Exhibit D to the affidavit contained an advertisement for the property). And even if the rental advertisements do not mention the owner’s name, that connection may be public if the advertisements mention the property address, and searching for the property address reveals the owner’s name.

The address of the property, and its link to Judge Ozalis, is likely also not confidential information. Mr. Hardy stated that Ms. Saggese got all her information from “the Internet” (Tr. of Jan. 15, 2020 Hearing, at 21); and, for better or worse, the addresses of property that people own are generally not secret, but are often available from free online copies of phone directories, as well as from many pay services.

Moreover, judges are high public officials; their privacy interests are necessarily reduced, especially when their private behavior is alleged to bear on their public duties—for instance, on whether they can fairly preside over a case.

“‘There are inherent limitations of a unique and significant nature regarding any claim to the right of privacy on the part of … incumbent public officials.'” Seymour v. Elections Enforcement Comm’n, 255 Conn. 78, 100 (2000) (citing Fritz v. Gorton, 83 Wash. 2d 275, 294 (1974)); see also, e.g., McCall v. Oroville Mercury Co., 142 Cal. App. 3d 805, 807 (1983) (“A government official … has usually been considered a ‘public figure’ who has waived much of his right to privacy.”); Lambert v. Belknap County Convention, 157 N.H. 375, 384 (2008) (“a candidate voluntarily seeking to fill an elected public office has a diminished privacy expectation in personal information relevant to that office,” reasoning applicable to sitting high-level appointed officials as well as candidates); Common Cause v. Nat’l Archives & Records Serv., 628 F.2d 179, 184 (D.C. Cir. 1980) (taking the same view).

Indeed, the courts that have considered restrictions on the publication of home addresses of government officials, especially when the addresses are connected to disputes about government action, have generally held that the restrictions violate the First Amendment.

See Publius v. Boyer-Vine, 237 F. Supp. 3d 997, 1020-21 (E.D. Cal. 2017) (preliminary injunction case) (home addresses of legislators); Brayshaw v. City of Tallahassee, 709 F. Supp. 2d 1244, 1247 (N.D. Fla. 2010) (home addresses of police officers); Sheehan v. Gregoire, 272 F. Supp. 2d 1135, 1139 (W.D. Wash. 2003) (home addresses of police officers). But see Bui v. Dangelas, 2019 WL 7341671 (Tex. Ct. App. Dec. 31, 2019) (nonprecedential) (upholding injunction ordering the removal of comments containing a private individual’s home address, because plaintiff showed “the probable risk of irreparable injury—in the form of physical violence—… in the context of active threats against [plaintiff] by others”).

Such home and vacation home addresses should likewise not be viewed as confidential for sealing purposes, since the right of public access to court records is derived in part from the First Amendment

(see Part III.A, supra); and that is especially so when, as here, the addresses are relevant to a dispute about whether the judge should be disqualified.

Conclusion

“‘People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing.'” Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Ct., 478 U.S. 1, 13 (1986) (citation omitted).

This observation is especially apt for disqualification decisions, where questions—well-founded or not—about a judge’s ability to fairly decide a case have already been raised.

The petitioner therefore respectfully moves this Court to unseal the entirety of the motion to disqualify and the brief in support of the motion, or at least to minimize the amount of material that is redacted in those documents.

Judge Britt Grant, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and FedSociety.com Member

Judge who sealed documents relating to her home in beach community gets reversed by Appellate Court

Feb 11, 2020

A Connecticut judge, who sealed two court documents relating to her own home in a Maine beach community, has been reversed by the state Appellate Court — which on Friday, Feb. 7, ordered that the blocked material be restored to the public record in Superior Court in New Haven.

The records were unsealed Monday, undoing Superior Court Judge Sheila Ozalis’ Jan. 15 orders in a three-year-old lawsuit, which stems from a dispute over beach access rights between owners of property on Branford’s waterfront and homeowners a short distance inland.

Ozalis had blocked public access to two documents — a lawyer’s motion and a supporting memorandum that claimed she has a potential conflict of interest serious enough to disqualify her from continuing to preside over the case.

The conflict of interest issue, as stated by lawyer David Hardy in his newly unsealed brief on behalf of a waterfront resident, is that Ozalis and her husband own a house in a Maine beach community where a lawsuit similar to the Branford case was contested in the past decade.

Although Ozalis was never involved in the Maine litigation, Hardy said someone could reasonably question “whether a judge with a personal interest of the type held by Judge Ozalis” in Maine could “impartially preside” in a Connecticut case “presenting the same fundamental … dynamics and issues.”

Hardy said “maintaining the appearance of impartiality is just as important as actual impartiality” in engendering “public confidence in the administration in the administration of justice.”

Ozalis took issue with Hardy during a court hearing Jan. 15, a transcript of which says she referred to his documents as “a potential security issue” and asked him “what evidence do you have” for his claims.

In both her sealing orders, dated that same day, Ozalis said Hardy’s documents contained “unnecessary, sensitive material that is entitled to remain confidential” — such as the address of the house, which is a short walk from a beach on the Maine coast, as well as maps, photos, and local assessor’s records.

She added: “The individual’s privacy interest in the information in this document overrides the public’s interest in viewing the material” — again, the individual being Ozalis — and “[t]here is no reasonable alternative to protect the individual’s privacy interest.”

As things turned out, there was an alternative — which was to decide, as the Appellate Court did last Friday, that the public’s interest in seeing the information outweighed the judge’s interest in protecting her privacy.

But that wouldn’t happen for weeks. In the meantime, Ozalis didn’t recuse herself as judge, and she had Hardy file a new motion and memorandum on Jan. 27, this time with “redactions” blacking out details she considered sensitive.

‘Volokh Conspiracy’

And there things might have stood for the moment — except for the arrival on the scene of a colorful law professor, Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor at the UCLA School of Law.

Volokh, an attorney who runs UCLA’s privately endowed First Amendment law clinic, has jetted around the country for years, intervening and filing briefs in a wide variety of cases and locales. He often jumps into matters of free speech and public access to court proceedings.

When he noticed a listing of Ozalis’ sealing orders last month on the Connecticut Judicial Branch website, he quickly fired off a petition to the Appellate Court — asking it to review Ozalis’ orders and unseal the documents.

Nobody, other than Volokh, the outsider, appealed the judge’s sealing of the documents even though there’ve been about 20 parties in the lawsuit.

The professor followed up his appellate petition with expanded written arguments on Jan. 29, and then he incorporated those into an article for “The Volokh Conspiracy,” a law blog he founded and for which he is the main writer.

“If a motion to recuse” — such as Hardy’s motion — “argues that the judge has a conflict of interest because she owns particular property, can the judge order the redaction of all the details related to the location of the property?” he wrote at the top of a Feb. 4 blog post.

Toward answering that question, he ran through a recent history of the Superior Court case leading up to his petition to the higher court.

He mentioned a Jan. 17 order in the case by a different judge, Robert Young, telling Hardy to appear in court Jan. 21 to argue “why he should not be disciplined” for filing his motion with “allegations of bias as well as personal and personally identifying information of Judge Sheila A. Ozalis.”

Volokh noted that Young’s order stated that “the Court shall consider … whether attorney Hardy has made statements he knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity concerning the integrity of a judge; violated or attempted to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assisted or induced another to do so, or did so [through] the acts of another; and/or engaged in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice in attempting to intimidate or harass a judge by posting her personal information on a website which is accessible to the public.”

Hardy’s Jan. 21 hearing was adjourned and continued to Jan. 27, but since then it’s been taken off the court calendar, Volokh noted.

Hardy couldn’t be reached for comment Monday. Ozalis declined comment through a Judicial Branch spokesperson.

Basis for disqualification

Volokh wrote in his Jan. 29 memo to the Appellate Court that “[p]ublic monitoring of the judicial process through open court proceedings and records enhances confidence in the judicial system. … But the public cannot evaluate decisions about [a judge’s] disqualification without understanding the basis for the motion for disqualification. Perhaps [Hardy’s] motion in this case was unfounded, and even unethical — but the public cannot confidently accept the denial of the motion if key facts on which the motion relies are redacted.”

He quoted a precedent saying that unless otherwise provided by law, “there shall be a presumption that documents filed with the court shall be available to the public.” And when a motion to disqualify a judge is “based on the judge’s ownership interest in certain real estate, the public must be able to learn the location of that property, so as to be able to effectively understand and investigate the merits of the motion,” he wrote. “The redactions … interfere with the public’s ability to understand the nature and magnitude of any alleged conflict.”

He said Hardy’s documents don’t contain “the sort of highly private, personal information that would warrant sealing,” adding that assessor’s cards and maps “seem likely to be public records, open to all for inspection.” He said Hardy’s client has stated on the court record that she obtained the information for the documents from public sources, including online advertisements by a Maine real estate firm for vacation rentals of Ozalis’ spacious house that sleeps eight people.

“[E]ven if the rental advertisements do not mention the owner’s name, that connection may be public if the advertisements mention the property address, and searching for the property address reveals the owner’s name,” he wrote. “The address of the property, and its link to Judge Ozalis, is likely also not confidential information.”

Volokh wrote that Hardy stated during the Jan. 15 court hearing that his client “got all her information from ‘the Internet.” He added that, “for better or worse, the addresses of property that people own are generally not secret, but are often available from free online copies of phone directories, as well as from many pay services.”

“Moreover, judges are high public officials; their privacy interests are necessarily reduced, especially when their private behavior is alleged to bear on their public duties — for instance, on whether they can fairly preside over a case,” Volokh wrote. “Indeed, the courts that have considered restrictions on the publication of home addresses of government officials, especially when the addresses are connected to disputes about government action, have generally held that the restrictions violate the First Amendment.”

Volokh stood before three Appellate Court judges in Hartford last Friday morning, having flown in the night before, and answered a few questions from them during a very brief appearance. No one argued against his request to the higher court, and the judges clearly had bought his written arguments.

Later that day, the court issued a short ruling that concluded: “The petition … is granted, in that the sealing orders [by Ozalis] … are hereby ordered vacated. The trial court clerk is ordered to unseal [the two documents] upon receipt of this order.” That happened Monday.

Meanwhile, a court filing late last week says that the parties in the case, from property owners to selectmen for the town of Branford, have agreed on a settlement, pending ratification of its terms by all people and entities concerned. “A withdrawal of this action is ordered to be filed on or before May 19, 2020,” the document says.

It would be a quiet end to the lawsuit — which wouldn’t have drawn much attention outside the Branford area, if not for the judge’s sealing order that was intended to avoid public notice of information she considered sensitive.

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