MFIA Clinic Fights for Access to Recordings of Judicial Proceedings in Puerto Rico
The Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) clinic at Yale Law School petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court cutting off all public access to judicial proceedings involving domestic violence. Filed on October 29, 2021 on behalf of the Asociación de Periodistas de Puerto Rico (the Puerto Rico Journalists Association, or “ASPPRO”), the petition seeks review of a high-profile case that has caused public outrage in Puerto Rico for several months.
The case began when Andrea Cristina Ruiz Costas sought Puerto Rican courts’ protection from her ex-boyfriend, Miguel Ocasio Santiago. Three times in the span of a single week in March 2021, her pleas for protection were denied by Puerto Rican courts. Shortly after her last request was denied, Ruiz Costas was murdered by Ocasio Santiago.
Immediate and intense public anger followed the news of the murder, resulting in large protests in San Juan on May 2, 2021. With epidemic levels of domestic violence in Puerto Rico, and promises by politicians to address the situation, the public wanted an explanation for why and how the courts had so failed Ruiz Costas.
To inform the public about the courts’ failures, news organizations ASPPRO and the Overseas Press Club (“OPC”), supported by Ruiz Costas’s family, requested that the courts disclose copies of the official audio recordings of the proceedings in which Ruiz Costas’s requests for protection were denied. After OPC’s request directly to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court was denied for having been initiated in the wrong forum, ASPPRO began a separate proceeding for the recordings in the trial court. But in an extraordinary move, just three days after ASPPRO filed its request, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, on its own initiative, took the case from the trial court and denied it before ASPPRO had any opportunity to brief and argue for its rights to the recordings. The court denied the request without mentioning the public’s First Amendment right of access to records of judicial proceedings, a right that is fundamental to public confidence in the judiciary, according to MFIA’s petition.
“By failing to consider the First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings, the court broke the laws of Puerto Rico and the Constitution of the United States, and took a major step against open government,” said Emile Shehada ’22, a student in the clinic.
ASPPRO’s members, the OPC, and other journalists worried that the court’s rushed and ill-considered decision was taken to protect the powerfully placed judges who denied Ruiz Costas’s requests.
Rafelli Gonzalez, MFIA’s Puerto Rican co-counsel who has represented ASPPRO throughout the case, criticized the decision. “A decision as terrible as the absolute prohibition of access to the information creates a dangerous sense of impunity on behalf of our judges and represents a direct attack on the basic foundation of citizen participation in the public discussion,” he said.
In addition to sealing records in the Ruiz Costas case, the decision requires all proceedings involving domestic violence to be closed, with all recordings barred from public access. No other state or territory categorically closes domestic violence proceedings in this way, according to the petition
In its petition, MFIA argues that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s decision conflicts directly with multiple decisions of the United States Supreme Court defining the scope and application of the access right.
The First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings is central to a strong legal system. “Although people don’t demand infallibility from their government, when access to proceedings is barred, it can become impossible to accept what you cannot see,” said Hannah Barbosa Cesnik ’22, a student in the clinic.
If the petition succeeds, it will ultimately open access to the recordings of Ruiz Costas’s proceedings and to domestic violence courts in Puerto Rico. “We are reaffirming the dignity of victims like Ruiz Costas, allowing her and her family to share their experience, understand how the courts failed her, and seek reform,” said clinic student Paul Meosky ’23.
Edgar Villanueva, additional Puerto Rican co-counsel, deemed the petition a rallying call. “With this effort we seek to regain confidence in our system, to make it a better one, and give a message that we are not standing idly by in the face of this devastating blow to our constitutional rights.”
The MFIA clinic at Yale Law School 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.