In North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. United States, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the media has no public right of access to a letter sealed by the court in the criminal prosecution of William Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, commonly referred to as the “Bridgegate” case.
The Facts of the Case
On April 23, 2015, a grand jury returned a nine-count indictment against William E. Baroni Jr. and Bridget Anne Kelly based on the Bridgegate political payback scheme under which access lanes of the George Washington Bridge were allegedly closed in retaliation for Fort Lee mayor’s refusal to endorse the Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election bid.
Following their indictment, Baroni and Kelly filed omnibus motions for discovery of certain information, including the identity of the unindicted co-conspirators referenced as “others” in the indictment. The government opposed the motion but said that it would, “in a document to be filed under seal, identify any other individual about whom [it] has sufficient evidence to designate as having joined the conspiracy.”
The government produced the “Conspirator Letter” to the defendants and also sent it to the judge with a request that it be shielded from public view. A consortium of media organizations filed a motion to intervene in the criminal case and for access to the Letter. North Jersey Media Group and others asserted a right of access to the Conspirator Letter under both the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and under common law.
After the district court ordered disclosure, the unidentified co-conspirator (John Doe) filed a motion to intervene. He sought to proceed anonymously and to stay the release of the Conspirator Letter. He argued that no right of access requires disclosure of the Conspirator Letter, and that identifying him as a co-conspirator would violate his due process rights. Nonetheless, the district court order the letter disclosed, and Doe appealed.
The Court’s Decision
The Third Circuit reversed, holding that there was no First Amendment or common law right of access to the letter. As explained by the Third Circuit, the key issue before the court was whether the letter is more akin to a bill of particulars, which is subject to a right of public access, or to a discovery disclosure in a criminal case, which has traditionally been kept from public view.
According to the Third Circuit, the Conspirator Letter does not share the attributes of a bill of particulars. The panel listed four separate reasons. First, the government’s understanding was that the Conspirator Letter was nothing more than discovery material. Second, the district court did not treat the letter as a bill of particulars. Third, the defendants also did not behave as though they believed the Conspirator Letter served as a bill of particulars. “One would have expected them to insist on the filing of the Conspirator Letter, if it were to be treated as a bill of particulars, yet the Conspirator Letter was never filed with the Clerk,” the Third Circuit stated. Fourth, the Conspirator Letter does not serve the purpose of a bill of particulars, which is to supplement an ambiguous indictment.
As the Third Circuit further explained:
Despite the Media’s protestations, the mere fact that the Conspirator Letter includes information that could also have been included in a bill of particulars does not turn it into one. Nor does the existence of a motion for a bill of particulars mean that all information flowing from the government must be treated as a response to the motion. The legal significance of a bill of particulars – supplementing and narrowing the charging document, and thus affecting the government’s case at trial – is not something to be lightly created by implication.
Finally, the Third Circuit held that the Conspirator Letter was not a judicial record that was subject to the common-law right of access.
For more information about the court’s Bridgegate decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.