AP Asks Court to Unseal Trade Center Documents

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(AP) A Manhattan judge reserved judgment Thursday on whether to unseal materials used to decide on a case-by-case basis whether death certificates would be issued for people missing after the World Trade Center attack.

After hearing oral arguments, Judge Eve Preminger of Manhattan Surrogate Court did not say when she would rule on The Associated Press’ petition to make public documents involving more than 2,400 cases.

The state and city created a special process for granting death certificates to families whose loved ones were missing and presumed dead after the Sept. 11 attack but whose remains were not identified.

All documents related to those cases are under seal, including court files involving roughly 50 cases in which officials denied death certificates because they suspected fraud. The AP has said there is compelling public interest in unsealing the documents to establish a historical record and to examine cases of fraud.

The judge said at the hearing’s outset that all court orders should be unsealed, but the issue in dispute was whether to release background materials such as “the final, highly personal statements of victims to survivors.”

The AP’s lawyer, David Schulz, said the “statements should be treated like testimony in court. They were, after all, the basis on which (the court’s) decisions were made.”

State law allows for such information to be made public, Schulz said. “The courts in New York have said you have no privacy rights after you die,” he said.

The judge disagreed with Schulz’s suggestion that survivors understood that the case information could become public. She added that no law covered such an extraordinary situation.

Preminger indicated she would pay special heed to the recommendations of attorney Burt Neuborne, whom she previously appointed to study the situation on behalf of the families.

Neuborne objected to the release of private information about the victims, but said he would not oppose the release of information in the 50 cases where fraud was suspected.

Lawyers for the police department and the district attorney’s office opposed the release of information about the suspicious cases, arguing it might interfere with ongoing or future investigations.

Preminger gave both agencies 60 days to put their specific objections in court briefs.

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