Here’s a worthwhile precedent that should make its way into media law textbooks, from right here in my back yard. My paper reported that the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that a federal magistrate judge abused his authority by agreeing to seal the amount of a settlement that Iberia Parish was ordered to pay in the wrongful death of a black suspect in a sheriff deputy’s car six years ago.
The appeals panel unanimously ruled that the amount of money a public body is ordered to pay in civil suits must be made public. Iberia Parish is just south of Lafayette Parish.
The case stemmed from the death of Victor White III, 22, who was handcuffed in the back seat of a police car when he was shot to death on March 3, 2014. According to the coroner’s report, White shot himself, apparently with his own gun, which the arresting officer supposedly overlooked. No criminal charges were ever filed, but federal authorities began investigating multiple allegations of abuse within the sheriff’s department and 11 deputies pleaded guilty to charges unrelated to White’s death.
White’s family sued the parish for wrongful death, and a settlement was reached in 2018. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna acceded to the request of the insurance company representing the Louisiana Sheriffs Association that the amount be sealed. The Advocate of Baton Rouge and KATC-TV3 in Lafayette asked Hanna to unseal it, citing the First Amendment and the Louisiana Public Records Act. Hizzoner said no dice.
But the 5th Circuit panel of Judges James Graves Jr., E. Grady Jolly and Stephen Higginson found that Hanna abused his discretion in keeping the settlement amount sealed, citing the First Amendment, Louisiana public records law and a “common law right to inspect and copy judicial records,” according to the story in The Advocate.
The appeals court panel also dismissed Hanna’s other rationales for keeping the amount of the settlement under wraps, including his concern over “the chilling effect that the public’s knowledge of the settlement might have on settlement negotiations and jury deliberations in upcoming similar cases.”
The panel found that Hanna’s notion “that disclosure might harm the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, its sheriff, or sheriff’s deputies by exposing them to additional liability and litigation is of no consequence.”
The panel also rebuked another justification Hanna offered for keeping the dollar figure: his rejection of “the media’s interest in releasing a sensational story regarding the amount of money paid to resolve the lawsuit without knowing anything about how the decisions were ultimately reached in the parties’ settlement negotiations.”
The appeals court was unpersuaded.
“While the facts of this case may be ‘sensational,’ the media’s interest in judicial records and proceedings is generally more important than (Hanna’s) characterization would imply,” the judges wrote. . . .
It could still be months before the amount is released, owing to the appeal process.
It was interesting to me that White’s death preceded that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by five months but was largely ignored by the national media.
There’s much more to the story. Here’s the link to The Advocate’s story.
Dwayne Fatherree at The Daily Iberian magnanimously provides us with a link to the entire 23-page appellate decision, which you legal scholars would do well to archive. Click on “download PDF.”
“If you ever get to the place where injustice doesn’t bother you, you’re dead.”
—Molly Ivins (1944-2007)
Texas-based journalist, liberal columnist/pundit and author