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Court Says Drug Kingpin’s Case Papers Can Be Shown

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The 9th Circuit upheld most of an order to unseal documents related to the secret guilty plea of a Mexican drug kingpin who ran a cartel with Javier Arrellano-Felix and Arturo Villareal-Heredia.

The ruling was a victory for Copley Press Inc., publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune, which requested access to information about Ismael Higuera-Guerrero's secret plea.

Higuera-Guerrero pleaded guilty and pledged to help the government bring down the cartel. The government fought to seal the plea proceedings, arguing that publicity would endanger the defendant and others.

Higuera-Guerrero was sentenced in December to 40 years in prison for bribing, torturing and murdering on behalf of the drug ring.

Prosecutors were able to keep his guilty plea under wraps for weeks, citing safety concerns.

But after the defendant's safety was assured, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns unsealed most of the plea proceedings, except for Higuera-Guerrero's agreement to cooperate with investigators. Burns later unsealed those documents, acting on a request by Copley Press' attorney, and also released evidence supporting the motion to seal.

The appeals court agreed that the public has a First Amendment right to view transcripts of the plea proceedings and documents describing the defendant's cooperation, but ruled that the district court abused its discretion in unsealing portions of the transcripts explaining how unsealing the plea would endanger Higuera-Guerrero and others.

"The transcripts will inevitably contain not only the facts the parties hope to keep secret, but also their reasons for doing so, which are likely to be just as private as the facts at issue," Judge Kozinski wrote.

The defendant's former partners pleaded guilty after oral arguments.

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