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Sixth Circuit rules against access to court audio records

The appeals court found that Michigan litigants failed to show their First Amendment rights were violated when they were denied access to court recordings.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A pair of Michigan litigants do not have a fundamental right to the audio recordings of their court proceedings, the Sixth Circuit held Thursday.

The three-judge panel found that Kolu Stevens and Claudette Greenhoe failed to show they were entitled to the court-made recordings under the First Amendment.

“For our part, we have found no case establishing the historical availability of audio recordings of court proceedings when a party can attend a trial, receive a transcript, and request the right to record the proceedings themselves,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Moore, a Clinton appointee, in a 15-page opinion.

The ruling culminated out of two separate legal cases in Michigan. According to court documents, Greenhoe and her husband were involved in a matter before the Bay County Probate Court while Stevens was a party to case before the Family Division of the Antrim County Circuit Court

In both cases, the parties sought and were denied the audio recordings of their proceedings, which they tried to get based on their belief that the court transcripts contained serious errors.

They filed a federal lawsuit challenging the denials but U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney ruled against them, finding that no First Amendment rights were violated when the courts denied access to the recordings.

During oral arguments before the Sixth Circuit in June, attorney Philip Ellison argued that his clients were wrongfully denied the recordings as the state of Michigan had designed such recordings as “court records.”

Moore wrote that while courts have established a First Amendment right to court records, the label a state places on specific records is not all encompassing for First Amendment access rights.

The ruling states that the U.S. Supreme Court has given lower courts instructions to look to “experience and logic” when determining whether a specific set of materials are subject to access under the First Amendment, and that Greenhoe and Stevens failed to advance an argument that addressed that fact.

“As a result, we need not consider whether these local courts entered findings sufficient to support their bans on providing audio recordings, because Appellants have not shown that they had a First Amendment right to access the recordings to begin with,” Moore wrote. “In sum, Appellants have failed to present any argument as to the relevant legal test. These Appellants therefore have not shown a violation of First Amendment guarantees under the circumstances of this case.”

Ellison expressed disappointment in the court’s ruling in a statement Thursday.

“We have received the Sixth Circuit's opinion and are disappointed by its unpublished decision," the attorney said. "The opinion is being carefully studied and evaluated to guide our next steps on an important constitutional challenge specifically seeking to infuse needed transparency into important state courts throughout Michigan and beyond.”

Joining Moore in the unanimous ruling were U.S. Circuit Judges Danny Boggs, a Reagan appointee, and Richard Griffin, appointed by George W. Bush.

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