Sunday, July 13th, 2008

The Secret Guardin’

United States v. Aref, No. 07-0981-cr (2d Cir. July 2, 2008) (Jacobs, McLaughlin, CJJ, Sand, DJ)

In this terrorism prosecution, the court held that the district court can, for “good cause,” restrict a defendant’s access to discoverable material that might impact on national security concerns.

The court first noted that the relevant legal provisions, the Classified Information Protection Act and Fed.R.Crimp.P 16(d)(1), presuppose, without creating, a privilege against disclosing classified information. The privilege itself arises from the “common-law privilege against disclosure of state secrets,” and the court expressly rejected the notion – advocated by some in Congress – that this privilege does not apply in criminal cases. Rather, the court held, the privilege can apply in a criminal case, but it must “give way” when the evidence at issue is material to a criminal defendant’s right to present a meaningful defense.

First, a district court must decide whether the evidence is discoverable at all. Next, it must decide whether the state secret doctrine applies; it does when there is a “reasonable danger” that production of the evidence will expose evidence that, in the interest of national security, should not be exposed, and where the “head of the department” that has control over the matter has said so. If the material is discoverable and privileged, the court must next determine whether it is material to the defense; that is, useful “to counter the government’s case or to bolster a defense.” All of these rulings are reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion.

Here, the circuit found no abuse of discretion, even though the government did not establish the privilege through the “head” of the relevant “department.” Here, this formality would have been of “little or no benefit.” On its own review, the court agreed that the district court did not deny the defendants any helpful evidence, and that the lower court permissibly relied on ex parte contacts with the government.

Relatedly, this decision also deals with NYCLU’s motion to intervene in the case. First, the court had to decide whether such a motion is even proper. It is, given the public’s First Amendment right to access to criminal proceedings. Since federal courts have the inherent power to formulate procedural rules to implement a remedy for the violation of recognized rights, “a motion to intervene to assert the public’s First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings is proper.”

The court next held that the standard of appellate review of the disposition of such a motion is abuse of discretion, and that there was no abuse of discretion here.

Finally, the district court did not err in denying NYCLU access to its sealed orders and other documents relating to the privileged materials, although the court stressed that district courts should avoid sealing judicial documents “in their entirety” unless it is truly necessary.

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