NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut Judicial Branch officials on Monday refused to publicly justify the secrecy of a lawsuit filed against seven teenage boys from a wealthy shoreline town by a girl who claims she was gang-raped at a New Year’s Eve party in Madison.
New London Superior Court Judge James J. Devine ordered the entire file temporarily sealed Dec. 9 “until further court order” and pending a hearing on the issue. The judge entered the order at the request of the girl and her mother. The Associated Press reported on the secrecy surrounding the lawsuit after learning the case was filed.
A notice of a Monday hearing was posted on the Judicial Branch website, saying only that the proceeding would involve motions to seal the file. At the hearing, Judge Robert A. Martin allowed the public to sit in but the motion remained sealed and there was little discussion.
Martin said the order sealing the file remained in effect and the plaintiffs could continue to use pseudonyms. He ordered the case transferred to New Haven Superior court, where Madison cases are heard.
Some details of the Madison case are spelled out in a federal lawsuit the girl and her mother filed against Madison school officials. That lawsuit says the boys pleaded guilty to assault allegations in juvenile court. Juvenile courts keep documents under seal because of the defendants’ ages.
On Monday, a Judicial Branch spokeswoman, Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, said judicial branch officials do not comment on pending lawsuits or judge’s rulings. Also, a court clerk in New London refused an AP request to release the Dec. 9 ruling ordering the file sealed. The clerk said the ruling itself is sealed.
Matthew Auger, a lawyer for the girl and her mother, declined to comment after Monday’s hearing. Lawyers for the defendants also declined to comment.
Sealing court records and files has been an issue in the past in Connecticut. News media reports in 2003 unveiled a Judicial Branch practice involving so-called “super-sealed” lawsuits — cases so secretive that officials wouldn’t even confirm their existence. The reports prompted judicial officials to abolish the practice and change the rules on sealing cases.
Connecticut law and judicial rules now say there is a presumption that court documents are available to the public, and judges must first consider reasonable alternatives such as blacking out names and using pseudonyms before sealing documents. A judge who seals files and documents must first determine that the interest in keeping them from public view overrides the public’s interest in viewing the files and documents, and the judge must articulate the reasons for the sealing.
But state court rules also say that judges can seal entire files only after finding that less drastic measures — including redacting names, sealing only portions of files or allowing pseudonyms — will not ensure the interests of sealing the file over the public interest of viewing it. The court rules say a judge’s reasons for sealing files and documents can themselves be sealed, if those findings would reveal information entitled to remain confidential.
In the Madison case, the 15-year-old girl and her mother are suing the seven teenagers and their parents in connection with her allegations that she was gang-raped by five classmates in wealthy Madison at a New Year’s Eve party in 2009, when they were all middle school students. A lawyer for one of the teenage boys and his parents says the suit alleges the parents failed to supervise their children.
The complaint accuses five of the seven boys of rape; a sixth boy is accused of taking photos of the alleged assaults and showing them to classmates at the middle school in Madison, which all the youths attended. It is not clear why a seventh boy is being sued.
The federal lawsuit the girl and her mother filed against Madison school officials alleges that school officials, after learning about the rape allegations, failed to discipline the boys, allowed them to remain in school and took no actions to prevent the boys from having contact with the girl while in school. School officials deny the allegations.
The girl “was subjected to repeated contact with and harassment by the assailants, the photographer and their friends,” the lawsuit said in accusing school officials of inaction. The girl has suffered emotional distress and her mother has been forced to pay for her to attend an out-of-town education program, the suit said.
Judicial openness has been a top priority for state Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, and the principle of openness was featured prominently in a 2006 ruling by the state Appellate Court.
In a lawsuit involving allegations of child sexual assault, the Appellate Court noted that the presumption of openness in court proceedings is a fundamental principle of the judicial system and that policy “is not to be abridged lightly.”
“In fact, the legislature has provided for very few instances in which it has determined that … certain privacy concerns outweigh the public’s interest in open judicial proceedings,” the Appellate Court said.
The “super-sealing” controversy unveiled in 2003 led judicial officials in 2007 to release the identities of parties in more than two dozen lawsuits that court officials previously wouldn’t confirm existed.
The Judicial Branch released some information on 40 “super-sealed” civil cases ranging from 1988 to 2002, including several that had been reported in news accounts. The suits included the divorces of a former Middletown mayor and a former Manchester police officer; a paternity claim against Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen’s band; and cases involving some municipalities.
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