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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Federal Court Rules that Alabama Must Release Records of Execution Procedures

After a unanimous ruling released this week, the state of Alabama will now be officially forced to disclose its lethal injection protocol.

The Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) Clinic at Yale Law School argued for the public’s common-law right of access to judicial records of a court’s decision that allowed the state of Alabama to carry out an execution attempt in early 2018. The incident turned into a national story after executioners spent nearly two and a half hours trying, and failing, to place intravenous lines for death row inmate Doyle Lee Hamm’s lethal injection. Hamm ultimately survived the ordeal and the state agreed not to attempt execution again.

Following the botched execution, the Clinic intervened on behalf of the Associated Press, along with two local Alabama media outlets, the Montgomery Advertiser and Advance Local Media, in their quest for information. The Clinic argued that the documents the court considered in reaching its decision were judicial records and should be made available to the public.

On Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed in a 3-0 decision that the state must now release these records, affirming the district court’s ruling last year in favor of the Clinic and its clients.

“Judicial records provide grounds upon which a court relies in deciding cases,” the Court held. “And thus, the public has a valid interest in accessing these records to ensure the continued integrity and transparency of our governmental and judicial offices.”

The ruling also has implications far beyond death penalty litigation. 

“This happens to be a policy issue that is the subject of heated public debate, which generated a lot of interest in the case,” said Catherine Martinez ’19, who conducted oral argument before the Eleventh Circuit. “But it’s actually quite significant [outside this incident] for the public’s ability to understand what goes on in judicial proceedings.”

Yale Law students Charlie Seidell ’19, Michael Morse ’19, and Delbert Tran ’18 co-wrote the district court briefs with Martinez. MFIA Clinic co-director David Schulz ’78, staff attorney John Langford ’14, clinical lecturer Charles Crain, and summer fellow Christine D’Alessandro prepared the briefing for the Eleventh Circuit. The Clinic was assisted by John G. Thompson, Jr., and Gabriella E. Alonso of Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC.

“We’re thrilled that the court of appeals upheld the district court’s decision that our clients and the public are entitled to this document,” said MFIA attorney Charles Cain. “The court ruled that access to judicial records is essential to the proper functioning of government and the courts, and we agree.”

The MFIA Clinic is dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression through impact litigation, direct legal services, and policy work. The clinic is an initiative of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School and is funded by the Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression.

by Leah Ferentinos