Idaho media coalition reunites in fight for openness in private prison lawsuit

From the Idaho Press Club Communicator

By Todd Dvorak

BOISE – For the second consecutive year, a broad coalition of Idaho news organizations has joined together in a fight for openness. This time, the focus of the battle is a lawsuit in federal court pitting a group of inmates against the state’s only private prison contractor, the Corrections Corporation of America.

The case was filed last year and the inmates allege, among other things, that a pattern of understaffing and mismanagement at the prison has created a reality where gangs to run the lockup. Ultimately, that culture led to a brutal attack by the gang members on the plaintiffs in the case. The inmates are suing for damages and reforms at the prison.

But earlier this year, CCA lawyers filed a motion asking the judge to seal whatever it wants in the run-up to trial. The CCA motion is broad and could cover a range of motions, evidence and affidavits that in most other lawsuits would be ripe for public consumption. The plaintiffs in the case oppose the protective order and a judge is still weighing the merits.

Now the judge also has something else to consider in that decision making process: A motion to intervene by the Idaho media coalition and a separate motion arguing against sealing the court file. In June, the Associated Press led the charge to challenge CCA’s bid to close the court file by enlisting the help and financial resources of 16 other news organizations.

The list of partners includes: Idaho Statesman, The Spokesman-Review, The Times-News, KBOI-TV, Idaho Press-Tribune, Post Register, Lewiston Tribune, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Coeur d’Alene Press, Bonner County Daily Bee, Challis Messenger, Shelley Pioneer, Jefferson Star, Pioneer News Group, Idaho Press Club and the Newspaper Association of Idaho.

The coalition, and through its Lewiston-based attorney Chuck Brown, contend sealing the court file would make it nearly impossible for reporters to cover an important lawsuit. Moreover, Brown argues the protective order would violate the public’s right to know what is happening in the federal courts and the specifics of allegations against a company that is paid $29 million annually by the state of Idaho.

“This civil case raises issues of profound concern to the general public,” Brown wrote on behalf of the news organizations. “… Drawing a curtain of secrecy behind which the defendants can operate simply does not comport with the requirements of the First Amendment, nor Ninth Circuit case law as to the openness required of our judicial system, but also the openness required of our government.”

Brown’s name should be familiar to Idaho media and Press Club members. He was the attorney who represented more than a dozen Idaho media organizations that sued the Idaho Department of Correction last year in an effort to change the agency’s execution policy. The news organizations won that case when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held the state’s policy violated the right for the public to see the full process of an execution.

Brown says he is confident the news groups have another strong case, one also supported in appellate court precedent. As of press time, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge had yet to make a decision on the media’s motion to intervene to challenge CCA’s request for a protective order.

It should also be noted the same media coalition may be filing a similar action in a separate lawsuit involving CCA. This one involves the ACLU Idaho on behalf of inmates and a series of motions filed in a case that had been settled, but recently reopened and subject to mediation. Earlier this year, AP legal affairs reporter Rebecca Boone noticed that two motions and a judicial order had been filed under seal and separate from the mediation, which is routinely off limits to the public.

But because the new motions essentially create a court record, the media coalition has asked Brown to consider filing a motion to intervene in this case as well, arguing again that the motions and order should be unsealed and made part of the public record. Brown is still researching and deciding whether to file as of press time.

Todd Dvorak is the Boise correspondent for the Associated Press, and is the vice president of the Idaho Press Club board and chairman of the club’s First Amendment Committee.

From the Idaho Press Club Communicator

Not an IDOG member yet?