The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has handed down a decision to prevent the unsealing of trial tapes recorded during the 2010 Proposition 8 trial.
We resolve the narrow question before us on a narrow basis when we conclude that the district court abused its discretion by ordering the unsealing of the recording of the trial notwithstanding the trial judge’s commitment to the parties that the recording would not be publicly broadcast.
[. . .]
For the reasons discussed above, we reverse the order of the district court as an abuse of its discretion and remand with instructions to maintain the trial recordingunder seal.
The order also notes that the district court shall not return to former Chief Judge Walker the copy of the recording that he lodged with the court.
Chief U.S. District Judge James Ware ruled on Sept. 19 of last year that there was no compelling reason to keep the trial tapes out of the public domain, and that in the interests of public confidence in the judiciary it was in fact imperative to release the tapes so as to be as transparent as possible. He also ruled that a Supreme Court motion blocking Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the trial, from broadcasting live trial proceedings did not prevent unsealing the tapes after the fact.
As such, Ware ordered the tapes to be unsealed but stayed his decision until September 30 to allow for further court action. Defendant intervenors appealed.
The 9th Circuit, in the opinion issued today, disagreed with Ware’s ruling, writing that Judge Vaughn Walker, compelled by the Supreme Court, had given his assurances that the tapes would not be broadcast and that his sticking to that word was a key interest in maintaining public confidence. This in itself, the court said, constituted a compelling reason to keep the trial tapes under seal.
As such, the 9th Circuit judges concluded “for the reasons we explained above, that the integrity of the judicial process is a compelling interest that in these circumstances would be harmed by the nullification of the trial judge’s express assurances, and that there are no alternatives to maintaining the recording under seal that would protect the compelling interest at issue. In short, the recording cannot be released without undermining the integrity of the judicial system.”
Following an exhaustive trial period in 2010, the now retired Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that the 2008 ballot initiative, Proposition 8, was unconstitutional at even the most basic level of judicial scrutiny. Today’s ruling is a procedural matter that has no impact on this original case, for which the 9th Circuit is yet to hand down a decision.
The court must also decide on a motion to vacate Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling. Defendant intervenors argue Vaughn Walker was in a same-sex relationship at the time of the trial and, they say, this may have introduced an element of bias in his ruling.
Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to angela n.