After a high-profile sexual assault case involving a state Department of Land and Natural Resources law enforcement officer hit the state of Hawaii in January, prosecutor Mitch Roth moved to petition District Judge Barbara Takase to seal the case records, stating the underage victim’s right to privacy as his reasoning.
Once the records were sealed, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser quickly fought back and requested the Hawaii Supreme Court bar Judge Takase from sealing any additional case records.
The Star-Advertiser wasn’t after lurid details of an assault against a 16-year-old girl; they weren’t chasing a story or digging up dirt on the state department. What the Star-Advertiser was doing was one of the most important watchdog duties a newspaper can perform: protecting the public’s right to know. And by sealing the records, Judge Takase effectively was halting the Star-Advertiser’s and other journalists’ ability to report on the case.
“On behalf of the public and the media in general, (fighting this case) serves our constituency in terms of what it would mean down the road,” said editor Frank Bridgewater.
The newspaper cited a 2014 precedent as their basis for the request, in which a circuit court judge improperly sealed documents in a murder trial against a federal agent. The case’s outcome resulted in three steps judges must follow prior to sealing records: provide public notice, hold a hearing and specify the compelling reasons for making records confidential.
According to Bridgewater, Judge Takase performed none of those actions.
After the Star-Advertiser filed its petition, Roth refiled the documents redacting the victim’s name—allowing reporters access to the files. The Star-Advertiser reported that Roth called the paper’s case “moot.”
But it wasn’t enough for Bridgewater. The petition wasn’t about having access to the records; it was about a principle the paper must uphold. Bridgewater said he’s hoping the time and money the Star-Advertiser has spent (the process will cost several thousand dollars) will prevent judges from improperly sealing court records in the future.
“It’s important we take the lead on this,” Bridgewater said. “We have to. No one else will. No one else will know this is happening…We owe it to ourselves, our readers and the general public to keep an eye on these things.”
When E&P spoke with Bridgewater, the case was still ongoing with no set date for when a decision would be made. The paper recently filed a brief to refute factual and legal inaccuracies in the state’s and judge’s answers to the paper’s petition. But regardless of the outcome, Bridgewater said it’s important to continue their watchdog journalism.
“You just gotta go for it,” he said.