ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Under state Supreme Court rules, records in a criminal case can be sealed if a judge finds a specific interest would be harmed by public disclosure, but the judge’s sealing order must be “narrowly tailored.”
The rules say:
“The order shall require the sealing of only those documents, pages, or portions of a court record that contain the material that needs to be sealed. All other portions of each document or page shall be filed without limitation on public access.”
There was nothing narrow nor tailored in the sealing order by state District Judge Kenneth Martinez of Albuquerque in the public corruption case against Torrance County Manager Joy Ansley and contractor Christopher M. Valdez.
There is overwhelming legal precedent that most criminal proceedings must be open, but Martinez slapped a seal on the entire case record, prohibiting public access not only to allegations of a sexual relationship between Ansley and Valdez, but to basic information that previously had been available to the public, including the charges against Ansley and Valdez, the names of lawyers in the case, Martinez’s assignment to the case, the case timeline, even the case number.
Supreme Court rules also say a judge can seal records “only if the court by written order finds and states facts that establish” an interest that overcomes the right of public access and that the interest will be prejudiced if the records aren’t sealed.
Martinez stated no facts in his two-page sealing order dated Aug. 26. He didn’t even identify what interest overcame the right of public access to the case file or how the interest would be prejudiced without the file being sealed.
Martinez also excluded the public from the first day of the preliminary hearing for Ansley and Valdez to determine whether there was sufficient evidence for a trial.
The judge reversed course Tuesday, agreeing to open the hearing and unseal the case file. Martinez took the action after attorneys for the Journal and other news media filed an emergency motion to allow public access. Among other things, the attorneys alleged Martinez didn’t follow the law and rules for closing a hearing.
“Without access to court proceedings and documents, the public has no way of knowing how courts are carrying out the administration of justice that is fundamental to American government,” the lawyers for the Journal, Mountain View Telegraph and KRQE News 13 wrote in their motion.
The Supreme Court adopted the rules for sealing court records in 2010. Prior to that, there were few rules, and judges in magistrate and district courts were sealing hundreds of cases each year.
The blanket sealings didn’t just prevent the public from looking at case files; they wiped out all references to the cases in courthouse records available to the public. It was as if the cases never existed.
I called this “secret justice” in a series of columns in September and October 2008. I wrote about the sealing of a dog-bite case involving a state prosecutor, the sealing of divorces for the rich and powerful, even the sealing of malpractice and bad-debt cases against a prominent lawyer.
The state Attorney General’s Office on March filed 10 criminal charges each against Ansley and Valdez, accusing them of inflating county payments by more than $470,000 to Valdez’s company for construction work. They have denied wrongdoing, and Ansley has remained as county manager.
According to the unsealed case records, attorneys for Ansley and Valdez filed a motion in August to prohibit the AG’s Office from introducing evidence at the preliminary hearing of a sexual relationship between Ansley and Valdez.
The motion said the AG’s Office hadn’t produced any evidence of a sexual relationship and if the allegation of a relationship was made at the hearing, the jury pool for a trial of Ansley and Valdez would be tainted and a jury could reach an unjust decision.
On Aug. 26, Martinez held a closed hearing on the defense motion. There is no record that the judge ruled on that motion at the closed hearing, but attorneys for Ansley and Valdez made a motion to seal case records. Martinez issued the sealing order that same day. The AG’s Office had opposed the sealing.
The judge didn’t explain in the order why he issued it, and he provided no explanation from the bench this week after unsealing the case file and opening the preliminary hearing. I couldn’t reach Martinez to talk about his actions.
In opening the hearing and the case file, the judge said, “I do feel this is in furtherance of the precepts of this country,” including the Bill of Rights.
On Wednesday at the hearing, over the objections of attorneys for Ansley and Valdez, a friend of Ansley’s testified that Ansley told her of an intimate relationship with Valdez.
The preliminary hearing wrapped up Thursday, but Martinez didn’t rule on whether there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial. Instead of having prosecutors and defense attorneys give closing oral arguments, the judge gave them two weeks to submit written arguments.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.