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May 18, 2011

Fifth Circuit rules that secret sentencing was improper

As reported in this Houston Chronicle article, the Fifth Circuit late yesterday "ruled it was illegal for a judge to lock the public and the press out of a Houston courtroom while a man who was once one of the most wanted, feared and violent drug traffickers in the world was sentenced, without giving the Houston Chronicle a chance to challenge the secrecy."  The full Fifth Circuit opinion in this matter is available at this link, and it starts this way:

This case involves a district court’s order to close the sentencing proceeding of a drug cartel leader without first giving the press and public notice and an opportunity to be heard regarding the decision to close the hearing.  We conclude that the press and public have a First Amendment right of access to sentencing hearings, and that the district court should have given the press and public notice and an opportunity to be heard before closing the sentencing proceeding in this case.

May 18, 2011 at 07:03 AM | Permalink


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Good call on part of the 5th circuit. Unfortunately trying to read the opinion kills my screen reader so I can't actually read it. What did they order for relief? A new sentencing hearing seems like it would be a bit extreme but I'm not sure anything less is appropriate either.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 18, 2011 9:44:00 AM

They did not order a new sentencing hearing (nor did the defendant ask for one). The opinion is essentially advisory, but the court concluded it had jurisdiction because the facts are “capable of repetition, yet evading review.”

The only effect of the ruling is that it puts the District Court on notice, the next time there is a similar case.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | May 18, 2011 9:55:37 AM

Does anyone know who the DJ was? I was told once that the Houston courthouse once hosted the trial of a drug kingpin where the security concerns were so great that the guy was actually housed in some makeshift cell in the courthouse for his entire trial, rather than brought back to jail every night. At some point you wonder where paranoia has taken over the actual likelihood that a large federal courthouse is going to be attacked by a drug gang, though.

Posted by: Jay | May 18, 2011 2:21:37 PM

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