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Number of secret federal court cases, dockets increasing

[JURIST] Two separate press-sponsored investigations reported Saturday show a marked increase in secret proceedings in US federal courts in the last few years, mirroring a general trend towards secrecy in the executive branch of government during the Bush presidency. Figures tallied by the Administrative Office of the US Courts [official website] for AP show that some 5,116 defendants whose cases were completed in 2003, 2004 and 2005 still have their case records sealed, and that the number of cases sealed per year rose from less than 1000 in 2003 to almost 2400 in 2005. Most of the sealed cases were drug-related, although what AP describes as a "very small number" involved terrorism. Most also involve co-operating government witnesses. AP has more.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press meanwhile says that the number of hidden federal dockets - cases the existence of which is not even disclosed - has also surged in the District of Columbia, involving 450 criminal cases in US SC District Court in the past five years, some 18 percent of all cases in the jurisdiction. RCFP Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish said of the findings, "Over the last five years, we had a sense that criminal cases were disappearing. But we were astonished at how many there are. What this means is that we have federal convicts sitting in prison and there is no public track record of how they got there. That's not how democracy is supposed to work." Read the RCFP press release on the study, the RCFP report, and a full statistical breakdown. Secret dockets have been ruled unconstitutional in the Second Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit [2005 ruling in US v. Ochoa-Vasquez, PDF; RCFP press release] as contrary to the Sixth Amendment right to public criminal trial.

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