On Feb. 6, U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon ordered the unsealing of some names and information about government officials, granting in part a motion by former President Donald Trump to unseal a partially redacted version of his motion to compel prosecutors to hand over evidence.
“The parties are reminded of the strong presumption of public access in criminal proceedings,” the judge wrote, ordering that no unclassified material in the case be filed under seal going forward.
All filings under full or partial seal will require approval from the judge in the future, unless there are “clear and supported cases of risk to personal safety or national security.”
The case, prosecuted by special counsel Jack Smith, has been dominated by a battle for documents, extending the pre-trial motions stage and delaying what would have been a May 20 trial. Last year, President Trump pleaded not guilty to 40 counts related to allegedly mishandling classified documents.
On Jan. 16, President Trump filed multiple motions to compel discovery and attached several exhibits under seal. Some of these were emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and containing names and identifying information about government officials, which defense attorneys argue show that the prosecution and the Biden administration have colluded to target President Trump.
The defense attorneys have asked to unseal this information, and a coalition of news media companies have sought to intervene to request the same, both arguing that court filings are “matters of public record.”
The special counsel’s office has opposed both requests, arguing that there are witness safety and intimidation concerns.
Referencing the First Amendment, Judge Cannon found that “the Special Counsel has not set forth a sufficient factual or legal basis warranting deviation from the strong presumption in favor of public access to the records at issue.”
She found the prosecutors’ arguments “sparse and undifferentiated” and lacking the facts she needed to weigh their arguments.
“The Special Counsel also alludes, again in general terms, to the concern that ‘public disclosure of witness identities or their statements in advance of trial also risks infecting the testimony of other witnesses or unnecessarily influencing the jury pool,’” she wrote. “Even accepting those rationales for sealing, the Special Counsel’s submission offers nothing in the form of concrete factual support for those rationales.”
“A party seeking to seal or redact court filings, including pretrial motions, carries a heavy burden,” the order reads.
The U.S. Supreme Court has established that the press and public have a right to access criminal trial proceedings, which include the court records.
The defense, prosecutors, and judge agreed that certain information should remain redacted, such as personal phone numbers and home addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers.
However, the judge decided that much of the remaining information could be released, sometimes in partially redacted form. For example, the full email address of an official would be redacted to show only the server address, which would identify the department.
The FBI code name of a separate investigation can also be unsealed, as the special counsel didn’t give a reason why it shouldn’t be, the judge ordered.
“The Special Counsel fails to identify the information at issue, provide any explanation about the nature of the investigation, or explain how disclosure of the code name would prejudice or jeopardize the integrity of the separate investigation (assuming it remains ongoing),” the order reads.
The media request to intervene was thus dismissed as moot, and the judge declined to weigh in on whether the press has legal standing.
On Feb. 7, attorneys for President Trump filed a separate motion to adjourn some upcoming motions deadlines, noting that the resolution of this motion to compel—which can now be unsealed, but is still being litigated—may inform several new motions they plan to file.
Defense attorneys revealed they plan to file motions, including to dismiss the indictment, relating to “presidential immunity, the Presidential Records Act, President Trump’s security clearances, the vagueness doctrine, impermissible preindictment delay, and selective and vindictive prosecution” on Feb. 22.
The public version of the Jan. 16 motion to compel discovery accused the special counsel of covering up cooperation between executive branch departments and staff leading up to the indictment of President Trump, but most of the 22 emails referenced were redacted or not included.
“Though the Special Counsel’s Office has suppressed these communications, we know from FOIA releases that NARA started to coordinate with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community by Jan. 25, 2022,” the defense wrote.