Court suggests an easy way around the bother of openness

On page 5 of a six-page opinion In which Common Pleas Judge William H. Wolff Jr. extended a seal on some court documents in the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case, the judge mentions that a change of venue might “make life easier for the court.” But he rejects that option because it is more important to “respect the defendants’ right to a ‘public trial by an impartial jury in the county in which the offense[s are] alleged to have been committed.’”

Such devotion to duty is commendable.

But what comes next might lead a cynic to suggest that the judge was musing about — and then found — an easy way out of having to decide whether future filings should be made public.

In the very next paragraph, the judge draws a road map for how lawyers in the case can avoid the sticky necessity of having future filings subject to review as to whether they should be under seal.

“As to future filings other than the bill of particulars relating to the Cafaro defendants, should the State choose to file it rather than simply furnish it to the defendants, the court agrees with The Vindicator that it is entitled to notice of any effort to seal a document or close a proceeding and the right to participate in proceedings relating to whether a document should be sealed or a proceeding closed in whole or in part.”

This sounds easy

Having realized that he had gone too far in issuing a blanket seal on filings in the case, Wolff was facing the necessity of notifying The Vindicator and 21 WFMJ-TV whenever anything but a routine document came across the desk. His solution: suggest to the parties that they simply share documents rather than file them.

It appears to be a clever way for the judge to avoid having to weigh whether a document has to be made public or not, but it belies his preference that the press and the public keep their noses out of his tent.

The prosecutors, who are already outgunned by the defendants’ lawyers from Cleveland, Boston and New York by a factor of about 3-1, now have a choice pointed out for them by the judge: Play nice or spend time arguing over whether the public has a right to see court documents.

Early on, Judge Wolff remarked that this is the most complex case he has ever presided over. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s looking for corners to cut — and if the public is standing on one of those corners, well, that just makes life easier for the court.

Not a surprise, but a disappointment.

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