Newspaper seeks to open court records sealed by district judge
The Enid News & Eagle filed two motions Tuesday in Major County District Court to unseal the records of a felony perjury charge filed against an Enid attorney in May.
District Judge Ray Dean Linder blocked public access to the records the same day the charge was filed against attorney Eric Edwards.
Asked why he had sealed the case, Linder gave these reasons:
- "Because in my professional opinion it deserved to be sealed.
- "Because I am the district judge and I believe all persons are presumed innocent until their guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt by a qualified jury or judicial process.
- "My personal opinion, my professional opinion, my 50 years of experience as an attorney."
But Tuesday, the 71-year-old judge denied knowing about the felony case against Edwards.
"I don't know what case you're referring to," he told the newspaper.
When Linder was told the case name again, he asked: "Is that a sealed case? I mean, are we playing games here?"
When the newspaper asked if he knew of a felony perjury case against Edwards, Linder said, "I have heard some rumors about it, I guess, but I have no direct information since the case is sealed and I don't have access to the records."
In the newspaper's story published today, News & Eagle Publisher Jeff Funk raised serious questions about why Linder had become involved in the case.
"It appeared the charge against Eric Edwards was assigned to a Major County judge to hear, but a judge came in from another county, took over this case immediately and sealed it," Funk said. "Why such extraordinary behavior?"
Linder presides over Oklahoma's 4th Judicial District, Division 1, which covers Alfalfa, Dewey, Major, Woods and Woodward counties. But his courtroom is in Woods County.
Linder had told the newspaper that the case would "remain sealed until I say it shouldn't be sealed."
But the Enid News & Eagle sought Tuesday to intervene in the case for the purpose of filing a motion to unseal the case record and to lift Linder's order sealing the case.
In the motions filed on behalf of the newspaper, Oklahoma City attorney Michael Minnis contended that Linder had failed to follow the proper procedures for closing a court record.
District judges are required to give adequate public notice that the closure might be ordered, provide interested parties an opportunity to object before deciding to seal the records, and state their reason along with specific findings supporting the decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said judicial documents are presumptively open to the public and may be sealed only if that right of access is outweighed by a compelling need to protect higher interests. (See, e.g., Nixon v. Warner Communications. Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597, 55 L. Ed. 2d 570, 98 S. Ct. 1306 (1978))
Thank you to Funk and the News & Eagle for standing up for the public's right of access.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.