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In a decision released today, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond held that the public and press right of access to court records trumps a corporation’s desire to keep quiet complaints about one of its products — regardless of whether those complaints are inaccurate or unfounded.

“Public access serves to promote trustworthiness of the judicial process, to curb judicial abuses, and to provide the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system, including a better perception of fairness,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd in Public Citizen v. Company Doe.

The court reversed a lower court ruling and ordered the unsealing of the entire record of a case that originated from an effort by a manufacturer to prevent the Consumer Product Safety Commission from publishing a negative report about one of the company’s products.

As described in an earlier NC Policy Watch story about the lower court proceedings:

In October, a manufacturer sued the CPSC to stop the agency from posting a negative report about one of its products. At the same time, the company asked to proceed under a pseudonym and to have the entire case litigated under seal. Consumer groups and the media objected to both requests, claiming that the public had a right to know the identity of the company and the facts underlying the case.

The court didn’t rule on that objection until July 2012, by which time the case had been secretly and fully litigated.  [The lower court judge] held that the subject report was inaccurate and should be withheld; that the company could litigate as “Company Doe”; that the case could proceed under seal; and that the objecting groups could not overturn his seal order.  He also found that the potential harm to the company’s reputation outweighed the right of access to judicial records and justified his decisions in the case.

The advocacy group Public Citizen, one of the organizations leading the charge for disclosure, called the decision “a resounding victory for both the First Amendment right of access to court records and for consumers.”

Not only will the decision stand as a bulwark against the type of secret litigation that occurred in this case, it will also help ensure the efficacy of the CPSC database by preventing companies from litigating challenges to individual CPSC reports through years of secret litigation — a practice that, if permitted, would have undermined the goal of providing timely information to consumers through the database.

The identity of Company Doe will be disclosed once the case is sent back to district court.

Read the full decision here.

 

 

 

 

Judge Andre Davis of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stepped down from active service on the bench on February 28.

Davis, the youngest of three Maryland-based judges on the court, is eligible for senior status upon turning 65 because he has served as an Article III judge since becoming a U.S. District Judge in 1995. He is the first of six Obama appointees to that court to take the step, which creates a new Maryland vacancy to be filled by the president.

The Fourth Circuit has had a full complement of 15 judges since Obama’s last appointment in 2012, West Virginia’s Stephanie D. Thacker.

Judge Davis was born in Baltimore, Md., in 1949. He was initially appointed to the U.S. District Court there by President Clinton in 1995 and then to the Fourth Circuit by President Obama in 2009. 

Davis is the first and only African American to represent Maryland on the Fourth Circuit, which includes Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas.  He was also the first African American nominated by President Obama to a federal judgeship and one of nine African American circuit court judges appointed by the president nationwide.

A native of Baltimore, Andre Davis graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and clerked for Maryland District Judge Frank Kaufman and Fourth Circuit Judge Francis Murnaghan.  Davis worked as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, taught at the University of Maryland School of Law, and served as a judge for nearly a decade on Maryland’s state trial courts.       

“We are indebted to Judge Davis for his extraordinary service on Maryland’s state and federal courts,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. “Judge Davis played a historic role in diversifying Maryland’s federal appellate bench, and he made enormous contributions to that court’s jurisprudence.  He is held in the highest regard by the communities served by the court, his colleagues on the bench, and all who appeared before him.”

Ifill and the LDF joined other civil rights organizations in a letter urging President Obama to “ensure that Maryland’s racial diversity continues to be reflected on Maryland’s federal appellate court.”

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide adequate health insurance for those employees or pay a penalty to the government.

The panel’s unanimous decision — by judges Diana Gribbon Motz, Andre M. Davis, and James A. Wynn, Jr. — was the first major ruling on the employer mandate’s constitutionality since the Supreme Court last year upheld the individual mandate of the 2010 law. It comes just nine days after the federal government delayed implementation of the employer mandate until January 1, 2015.

Last year, in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate under Congress’s taxing power, but five of the Justices said that Congress could not pass that part of the law under its Commerce Clause powers. In Liberty University v. Lew (Treasury Secretary), though, the Fourth Circuit based its decision in favor of the employer mandate directly on those powers.

“We find that the employer mandate is no monster; rather, it is simply another example of Congress’s longstanding authority to regulate employee compensation offered and paid for by employers in interstate commerce,” the judges wrote.

Liberty University has the option of asking the full court to hear the case en banc, or seeking review at the Supreme Court.