The Clarion-Ledger is fighting the sealing of several files and documents in cases involving Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith. One problem in reporting this entire saga is there is another fight going on behind closed doors that involves in varying degrees two Circuit judges, a Special Master, the District Attorney, and several Assistant Attorneys General. They are all public officials and these documents are all public records yet the public is not able to see them nor see what their public officials are doing. The newspaper said enough and filed several motions in court.... which of course were sealed. Anna Wolfe and Molly Bryant reported in the Clarion-Ledger a few days ago:
The case against Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith is a puzzle — the missing pieces of which may be hidden within sealed cases and hearings in Hinds County Circuit Court and the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The Clarion-Ledger is asking the courts to unseal those records.
Last month, the state attorney general’s office filed a six-count affidavit against Smith accusing him of aiding criminal defendants. The cases of those defendants, Christopher Butler and Darnell Turner, and other pertinent files are mostly inaccessible to the public.
The Clarion-Ledger has filed three petitions to access records the newspaper suggests were sealed improperly. One caveat is that, because the sealed cases and hearings go back months, even years, and are completely out of the public's view, determining what happened and what to ask for is like feeling around in a dark room.
The Clarion-Ledger's motions, filed Thursday, follow the courtroom battles between Smith and Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill stemming from the state attorney general’s allegations against the district attorney.
Investigations into Smith's courtroom activities began in other cases, like the one Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green agreed to seal at the attorney general's office request just before reassigning it. In that sealed case, an FBI agent with the last name of Culpepper testified against Smith on March 30 in Weill's courtroom.
In his request for the transcripts from that hearing, Smith's attorney, Jim Waide, called the testimony "exculpatory in nature and necessary to Smith's defense."
One of The Clarion-Ledger's motions suggests the hearing should not be sealed because it does not pertain to grand jury proceedings. In fact, The Clarion-Ledger's motion is now sealed as well since the entire case in which it is filed is sealed.
After Smith's arrest in June, Weill ordered Smith to be temporarily removed from his court docket and barred from participating in all Hinds County grand jury proceedings. In response to the order, which Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace later sealed, Smith is asking the state Supreme Court to prevent Weill’s order from being enforced.
Days later, two additional motions appeared in the case, neither of which is public. Other court records refer to these filings, which include a petition filed by the attorney general's office to prevent Smith and his assistant district attorneys from attending grand jury proceedings.
The attorney general’s office’s motion goes beyond Weill’s initial order that was limited to Smith. Weill’s order states the district attorney staff may participate in grand jury proceedings unless they act with or on behalf of Smith.
“However, the assistant district attorneys are specifically cautioned that any grand jury action or proceeding must relate to a lawful grand jury investigation and not made to serve in retaliation, in any manner, for the district attorney’s recent criminal charges and arrest,” Weill’s order said.
Another motion filed by The Clarion-Ledger asks for these Supreme Court files.
Then there’s the administrative folder in which Weill files any orders not pertaining to a specific case with a case number. Among those filings is Weill's order temporarily removing Smith from participating on his court docket.
When Weill filed that order, the file was open. Days later, it was sealed.
“That’s my personal record keeping, and I wanted it sealed,” Wallace said, adding he sealed the records himself. “That’s what I wanted.”
This file is the subject of The Clarion-Ledger's third unsealing motion. When asked where that motion would be filed, Wallace replied, "Nowhere."
Wallace said the administrative file is open to the public, but anyone wishing to access what's inside must contact Wallace directly and ask him to unseal them. No other employees in the clerk's office have authority to unseal the records, which are public. Wallace said he took this step to prohibit attorneys from filing any motions in that folder. Rest of article and copies of motions.
Kingfish note: Kudos to the Clarion-Ledger. A court must provide 24-hour notice and hold a hearing under the Gannett v. Hand holding before it can seal a case. However, there is an exception under the public records laws for investigations but that might apply to the Special Master report. Judge Weill and Judge Green should tread very carefully and remember that they work for the public even though they are judges.
*Judge Weill, Judge Green, District Attorney Smith, Attorney General prosecutors, Special Master Amy Whitten