MANHATTAN (CN) – More than a decade after his child sex-abuse case shocked the nation, the extraordinarily light sentence given to politically connected Jeffrey Epstein continues to embarrass multiple presidents, a prince and a powerful lawyer.
On Wednesday, the Second Circuit ordered sunlight for nearly 2,000 pages of files related to the wealthy tycoon and the dozens of girls whose assault claims he buried with an expansive plea deal.
The fight was one spurred on by Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown on the heels of her groundbreaking investigative series “Perversion of Justice,” which renewed national attention to the Epstein case by highlighting his ties to the nation’s elite.
In refusing to unseal those documents last year, however, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet said public access would defeat privacy interests and “promote scandal arising out of unproven potentially libelous statements.”
The Second Circuit vacated that decision today, with U.S. Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes waxing eloquently on behalf of a three-judge panel about how the ruling will empower journalists to inform the public about the U.S. judiciary.
“We have long noted that the press plays a vital role in ensuring the public right of access and in enhancing ‘the quality and safeguards the integrity of the fact-finding process,” the 24-page opinion states. “When faithfully observing its best traditions, the print and electronic media’ contributes to public understanding of the rule of law’ and ‘validates [its] claim of functioning as surrogates for the public.’”
Brown’s Polk Award-winning series for The Herald highlighted how the U.S. judiciary victimized the powerless and protected the powerful through President Trump’s Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who negotiated a sweetheart plea deal with Epstein in his former capacity as federal prosecutor a decade ago.
The agreement allowed Epstein to serve out a paltry 13-month sentence in a county jail, allowed him to take field trips outside his cell, and shielded his accused accomplices from prosecution.
Backing up The Herald’s exposé in February, a federal judge ruled that Acosta illegally withheld that plea deal from more than 30 of Epstein’s underage victims.
“Epstein used paid employees to find and bring minor girls to him,” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra wrote in a passionate opinion at the time. “Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others.”
That Florida judge is preparing to decide what, if any, penalty the government should face for violating the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.
On top of investigative reporting, the Epstein saga has inspired more than its share of sensationalism. The batch of files soon to be made public come from a lawsuit filed by Virginia Giuffre against Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell, accusing the British socialite of turning her into a “sex slave.”
Giuffre has claimed that Maxwell passed her off as a minor to Prince Andrew and said that she was trafficked to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz as an adult. Both vehemently denied the allegations.
Giuffre’s attorney David Boies, the chairman of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said in a phone interview that his client is “very pleased” with a ruling that they believe will call attention to the domestic scourge of sex-trafficking.
“Part of what she started to do five years ago is to start to speak out so that what happened to her will be less likely to happen to other young girls,” Boies said.
“It’s too easy to ignore the scope and scale of sex trafficking in the United States,” the attorney continued. “We tend to think this is a problem in foreign countries.”
Judge Cabranes emphasized the importance of treating the allegations contained in the sealed materials with caution.
“At the same time, the media does the public a profound disservice when it reports on parties’ allegations uncritically,” his ruling states.
Before The Herald mounted its appellate challenge, a blogger named Mike Cernovich tried to unseal the Giuffre docket on the trial court level in 2017. Cernovich had been known a year earlier for peddling the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed that prominent Democrats operated a child sex ring with help from a Beltway insider who owns the pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. The theory made mainstream headlines when Edgar Welch, an actor with a checkered drugs and alcohol record, stormed the pizza shop with a gun.
In a phone interview, Cernovich’s attorney Marc Randazza said he did not believe the court’s journalism-ethics lecture had been aimed at his client, whom he praised for first spotting the significance of the sealed federal court files.
“Frankly, I don’t think there are very many press outlets that couldn’t be accused of doing the same thing,” Randazza said.
Praising the court’s riff on journalistic responsibility, the First Amendment attorney added: “You don’t often see the courts going beyond what they have to do and giving that philosophical guidance.”
“The courts are handing down wisdom when they issue an order,” he added.
Randazza speculated that the court had been cautioning reporters about claims made by Giuffre’s attorney Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who said in open court that his client had been “trafficked” to Dershowitz. Giuffre sued Dershowitz in April for denying that allegation.
Dershowitz’s attorney Andrew Celli, who expects the sealed files to vindicate his client, applauded the ruling.
“We’re pleased that, after nearly three years of litigation, the court files have been opened up — as they always should have been,” Celli, a partner with Emery Celli, said in an email. “The First Amendment, and our trust in the judicial system, requires nothing less.”
Today’s ruling kicks off a lengthy process for unsealing the files. The Second Circuit itself plans to unseal a summary judgment record. Another judge will take over the role of carefully unsealing the remainder of the files for Sweet, who died in March at the age of 96.
In a partial dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler argued that all of the files should have been handled by the trial judge.
“On that score, it is worth clarifying here the breadth of the court’s unsealing order: it unseals nearly 2000 pages of material,” Pooler emphasized. “The task of identifying and making specific redactions in such a substantial volume is perilous; the consequences of even a seemingly minor error may be grave and are irrevocable.”
Boies said that he and his client Giuffre are readying for a protracted process.
“It’s a very important step toward making the information that the court has available to the public,” he said. “It’s only a first step.”
The Herald did not immediately respond to a request for comment by press time.