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United States v. Murray

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 15, 2018




         On April 24, 2018, the Court held a status conference to discuss Defendant Jill Murray's supervised release. At the request of Murray's counsel, a portion of that status conference occurred at the bench. Subsequently, a third party requested a copy of the transcript of the proceeding. See Dkt. 52. Based on the understanding that portions of the transcript might “contain information that is confidential in nature, ” the Court provided the parties with the opportunity to move to seal portions of the transcript. Minute Order (Apr. 25, 2018). In response, Murray moved for an order sealing the entire portion of the transcript from the bench conference, asserting that she has a compelling privacy interest in the matters discussed and that those matters are of little or no public interest. Dkt. 49. Because a third party had requested a copy of the transcript, and in light of the “strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings, ” Johnson v. Greater Se. Cmty. Hosp. Corp., 951 F.2d 1268, 1277 (D.C. Cir. 1991), the Court offered “[a]ny party or third[ ]party” the opportunity to oppose Murray's motion, Minute Order (May 8, 2018). Rather than oppose Murray's motion, the United States filed a timely response in which it joined in Murray's request to seal the designated portion of the transcript. Dkt. 51 at 4. Although recognizing the importance of public access, the United States agreed with Murray that “the portions of the record at issue have no bearing on the victim in the case or [on] any specifically identifiable public interest.” Id. at 2.

         Murray's estranged husband, Sacha Rosen, however, filed a brief opposing Murray's motion to seal. Dkt. 52. In his words, “[a]s Murray's husband, guardian of their children, and one of several persons substantially impacted by her crime and subsequent compliance with supervised release conditions, ” he “has a strong interest in the proceedings before this Court.” Id. at 1. Rosen further explained that he “follows the proceedings in this Court closely to learn a) whether Ms. Murray continues to comply with the conditions of her supervised release pertaining to the treatment of substance abuse and mental health issues, b) how Ms. Murray's restitution to the victims of her crimes may affect their shared assets, and c) whether Ms. Murray has made any representations to this Court that may directly or indirectly impact their children.” Id. at 2. In her reply brief, Murray argues that she and Rosen “are involved in bitter divorce proceedings, ” Dkt. 53 at 1, that in the status conference this Court merely addressed “how [she] is doing on supervised release, ” id., and that permitting Rosen to use statements made in that context to fuel their domestic relations dispute will have the effect of chilling Murray in future discussions relating to her personal life and supervised release, see Id. at 4, 6.

         I. ANALYSIS

         “[T]he starting point in considering a motion to seal court records is a ‘strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings.'” EEOC v. Nat'l Children's Ctr., Inc., 98 F.3d 1406, 1409 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (quoting Johnson, 951 F.2d at 1277). That presumption recognizes that “[t]he right of public access is a fundamental element of the rule of law, important to maintaining the integrity and legitimacy of an independent judiciary.” Metlife, Inc. v. Fin. Stability Oversight Council, 865 F.3d 661, 663 (D.C. Cir. 2017). It “promote[s] trustworthiness of the judicial process, . . . curb[s] judicial abuses, and . . . provide[s] the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system, including a better perception of fairness.” In re Application of Jason Leopold to Unseal Certain Elec. Surveillance Applications & Orders, 300 F.Supp.3d 61 (D.D.C. 2018) (quoting Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 266 (4th Cir. 2014)). Although the presumption is a “strong” one, it is “not absolute, ” id., and it “may be outweighed in certain cases by competing interests, ” Metlife, 865 F.3d at 665.

         To assist courts in assessing when the presumption gives way, the D.C. Circuit established a six-factor test in United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293 (D.C. Cir. 1980). That test-the “Hubbard test”-requires that courts weigh:

(1) the need for public access to the documents at issue; (2) the extent of previous public access to the documents; (3) the fact that someone has objected to disclosure, and the identity of that person; (4) the strength of any property and privacy interests asserted; (5) the possibility of prejudice to those opposing disclosure; and (6) the purposes for which the documents were introduced during the judicial proceedings.

Nat'l Children's Ctr., 98 F.3d at 1409 (citing Hubbard, 650 F.2d at 317-22). Applying this test, the Court concludes that the transcript should be released in part.

         1. Need for Public Access

         As the D.C. Circuit recognized in Hubbard, not all judicial records and proceedings are created equal. 650 F.2d at 317. In some circumstances, such as “the courtroom conduct of a criminal trial, ” the First Amendment requires public access. Id. In others, the common law may place a premium on public access. Id. And, in still others, the public interest in access may be minimal. Id. Although no precise formula controls in all cases, the public's interest is heightened when disclosure would “allow the public to understand the rulings as well as the contours of the disputes between the parties.” Hyatt v. Lee, 251 F.Supp.3d 181, 184 (D.D.C. 2017). Thus, for example, there is a strong public interest in access to documents “introduced as evidence of guilt or innocence in a trial, ” and in documents relied upon by a court in reaching a decision on questions of importance. Hubbard, 650 F.2d at 317. In contrast, the public interest in more peripheral matters, such as documents “seized from a third party nondefendant” and subsequently “introduced by the defendants solely to show the overbreadth of a search, ” id. at 295, 317, is less compelling.

         Here, Murray has already served her sentence, and the discussion at the bench principally involved a recommendation from the probation officer about Murray's ongoing supervision. The Court did not enter an order or modify the terms of Murray's supervised release, nor was there any discussion of any violation of the terms of supervised release. The Court was not presented with any evidence or legal argument. And, the recommendation that the probation officer made was similar to the type of reports that the probation office typically makes to the Court under seal. See, e.g., United States v. Harrison, No. 92-543-1, 2003 WL 21027286, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 7, 2003) (“United States probation files are confidential court records compiled in the course of fulfilling court-ordered responsibilities; a probation officer must be authorized by the court to release information from the presentence investigation report or probation files to third parties.”); see also United States v. Munir, 953 F.Supp.2d 470, 476-77 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (describing how probation offices confidentially provide information to courts). The Court does not doubt that Rosen has a strong, personal interest in these proceedings, but that interest bears most fundamentally on the divorce proceedings between him and Murray, which are pending in state court in South Carolina. It goes without saying that those divorce proceedings lie well beyond the jurisdiction of this Court. Moreover, and more importantly, Rosen has failed to explain how his personal interest in gathering information involving his estranged spouse relates to the public interest in understanding the judicial process and how this Court discharges its duties.

         In one limited respect, however, the discussion at the bench conference did disclose information of significant public interest; in particular, the parties disclosed that the Marshals Service had received a check from Murray for $96, 148.17, which it will convey in due course to the victims of Murray's criminal conduct. The public has an interest in knowing that a substantial portion of this Court's restitution order has been satisfied.

         The Court, accordingly, concludes there is a significant public interest in the disclosure of the amount of the restitution payment. In all other respects, however, the Court concludes that the need for public access to the transcript of the bench conference is, if anything, less substantial than the public interest in access to the sealed records that the Hubbard court deemed to be of “only modest[]” public interest. 650 F.2d at 318.

         2. Extent of ...

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