Mississippi Paper Wants Judge to Unseal Records in Bribe Case

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(AP) A South Mississippi newspaper has asked a federal judge to unseal records closed to the public in Mississippi’s judicial bribery case.

Since January 2004, prosecutors and defendants have filed at least 27 pleadings under seal. U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate also ordered pleadings sealed in at least three instances, most recently on March 21.

The Sun Herald, in a motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Jackson, argued that sealing records in the case, especially without notice, violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees the public’s right to inspect court files.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor, former Judges John Whitfield and Wes Teel, and Diaz’s ex-wife, Jennifer, are accused of participating in a scheme in which Minor allegedly provided cash, loans, and gifts to the judges in exchange for favorable decisions.

All have pleaded innocent. They are scheduled to stand trial May 9.

The Sun Herald asked the court unseal the records. The newspaper also wants reasonable notice from the court before any future attempt to seal records.

“The public and press have a right to attend court trials,” said Henry Laird, attorney for The Sun Herald. “To know what goes on in the courtroom, the public needs to know what’s in the court file before the trial starts.

“Before any file is sealed, the court has to determine that someone’s right to a fair trial is clearly jeopardized and there’s no other way to protect him, and you have to make that finding before the file is actually sealed. It doesn’t look like anything the law requires was done, but because so much of the file is sealed, it’s hard to tell,” Laird said.

Robert McDuff of Jackson, attorney for Oliver Diaz, said some sensitive matters were filed under seal.

Records under seal include defendants’ pleadings to limit evidence against them, allegations related to prosecutorial vindictiveness, motions filed by prosecutors and other pleadings.

Michael Crosby, attorney for Whitfield, said: “It’s such a high-profile cases and when you have voluminous records, you want to make sure someone doesn’t get an unfair impression before you get into a courtroom to put it into proper perspective.”

U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton said: “It’s just a balancing test between freedom of the press and a defendant’s right to have a fair trial. The judge will have to make that call.”

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