Newspapers Ask High Court to Resolve Conflict Over Access to Secret Immigration Hearings

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
March 3, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – Acting on behalf of a group of New Jersey newspapers, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lower court ruling upholding a government policy that blocks media and public access to immigration hearings of people detained after September 11.

Because another appeals court ruled that the policy was unconstitutional, this case warrants the Court’s attention, the ACLU said in legal papers, not only because of the disagreement between the two appeals courts, “but also because of the case’s immense practical, doctrinal and symbolic importance to the nation as a whole.”

“We believe that secret hearings are inconsistent with our constitutional system and that there must be scrutiny of the proceedings by the press and public,” said Lee Gelernt, a Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, which along with the ACLU of New Jersey represents the North Jersey Media Group and the New Jersey Law Journal in their challenge to the unprecedented closure policy.

At issue is a policy set forth in a September 21, 2001, memo from Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy to all immigration judges requiring the closure of all proceedings to the public and the press, when directed by the Justice Department.

Last August a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati unanimously struck down the Creppy policy in the case of an immigrant from Detroit. In a much-quoted decision, the court declared that “Democracies die behind closed doors.”

Ruling in the New Jersey case two months later, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld the policy. In both cases, the courts rejected requests for a full court review of the rulings. The government has not yet said whether it will ask the Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit decision.

“The First Amendment does not permit secret trials on the unilateral say-so of the Attorney General,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU. “The Justice Department’s sweeping policy of secret hearings deprives the public of the basic information it needs to judge our government’s actions.”

The case is North Jersey Media Group, Inc. and New Jersey Law Journal v. John Ashcroft, Attorney General of the United States and Hon. Michael Creppy, Chief Immigration Judge of the United States, No. 02-2524.

The ACLU’s request for Supreme Court review is online at /node/34998

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