The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation filed suit today to contest a regulation adopted last year by the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals. The regulation generally prohibits appellate judges from naming in written opinions the trial lawyers and trial judges involved in the cases they decide. The suit contends that this rule both violates the First Amendment rights of appellate judges and interferes with the public right to know what takes places in judicial proceedings.
The suit, filed in the Ohio Supreme Court, seeks to prevent the rule from being formally adopted by the Clerk of the Supreme Court, the last step necessary before the rule officially takes effect. The suit is being brought on behalf of Cuyahoga County Appeals Judge Ann Kilbane, the Cleveland Free Times newspaper, and Cleveland attorneys Ellen Mandel and Lester Potash.
At stake in the suit is nothing less than the public’s right to know what transpires in judicial proceedings. “These regulations draw a curtain of secrecy over what should be an open forum,” said David Webster, the Cleveland lawyer who heads the volunteer litigation team assembled by the ACLU to challenge the restriction, technically known as Local Appellate Rule 22(C). “The people have a right to know how their trial judges are doing, who gets upheld, and who gets overturned, and why,” added Webster.
The rule is unusual, if not unique, according to ACLU Legal Director Raymond Vasvari. Efforts to find similar provisions in court cases nationwide met with little success. “It seems to be a new idea, and a bad one at that,” said Vasvari. “Respect for the courts depends on public confidence in the process, and that in turn depends on justice being done in the light of day.”
The Ohio Supreme Court, which makes the rules that govern the conduct of all lower courts in Ohio, is empowered under the state constitution to oversee the appellate courts. While the state supreme court usually only hears appeals, certain rare actions, such as this, may be brought there in the first place.