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United States v. Sonin

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 10, 2016



J.P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge

This case comes before the Court on the Journal Sentinel, Inc.’s (“Journal Sentinel”) motion to intervene filed on behalf of one of its reporters. The Journal Sentinel objects to the Court sealing a portion of the formal sentencing hearings scheduled for defendants’ Vladimir Sonin and Natalya Sonina. (Docket #69). The Journal Sentinel also requests that the Court unseal certain documents related to the sentencing hearings which the Court permitted to be filed under seal. (Docket #69 at 1). Both defendants oppose the Journal Sentinel’s motion, and the government takes no position. (Docket #70, #74, #76).[1] For the reasons detailed below, the Court will grant the Journal Sentinel’s request to intervene, but will deny its request to access the entire sentencing hearings and will further deny its request to unseal certain documents related to the sentencings.


On November 18, 2015, defendant Vladimir Sonin (“Mr. Sonin”) pled guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft (see Docket #50) and, on November 24, 2016, defendant Natalya Sonina (“Ms. Sonina”) also pled guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft (see Docket #49).[2] The Court scheduled sentencing hearings for February 5, 2016, and February 18, 2016, respectively.

On February 5, 2016, the Court began its scheduled sentencing hearing for Mr. Sonin. (Transcript, Docket #69-1). Shortly after the hearing began, counsel for Mr. Sonin requested to seal the courtroom for a portion of the hearing to address one of the government’s previously filed submissions. (Transcript at 7, Docket #69-1). The government posed no objection and, thus, the Court instructed the bailiff to close the courtroom to the public aside from court staff, counsel and the parties, including the case agent. (Transcript at 7, Docket #69-1).

At that time, a member of the press, Mr. Bruce Vielmetti, a reporter with the Journal Sentinel, objected to the sealing of the courtroom. (Transcript at 8, Docket #69-1). Specifically, Mr. Vielmetti requested that the Court adjourn the hearing and that he be permitted to contact legal counsel to further argue the Journal Sentinel’s objection. (Transcript at 8, Docket #69-1). After some discussion and a brief recess, the Court found it best to adjourn the hearing and allow the Journal Sentinel to file a written memorandum detailing its objection. (Transcript at 8-9, Docket #69-1).

On February 12, 2016, the Journal Sentinel filed a motion to allow public access to sentencing. (Docket #69). On February 18, 2016, Mr. Sonin filed an opposition. (Docket #74). On February 22, 2016, with the Court’s permission, Ms. Sonina filed a response to the motion.[3] (Docket #76). The Journal Sentinel filed its reply, addressing both defendants’ arguments, on February 22, 2016. (Docket #78). The motion is now fully briefed and ready for disposition.


2.1 First Amendment Protection

The Supreme Court recognized a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 580 (1980) (plurality opinion). “In guaranteeing freedoms such as those of speech and press, ” Chief Justice Burger reasoned, “the First Amendment can be read as protecting the right of everyone to attend trials so as to give meaning to those explicit guarantees.” Id. at 575. These freedoms become attenuated unless courts are prohibited “‘from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.’” Id. at 575-76 (quoting First Nat'l Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978)). In a concurring opinion, Justice Brennan emphasized that, while in practice the First Amendment serves to protect communication between individuals, “the First Amendment embodies more than a commitment to free expression and communicative interchange for their own sakes; it has a structural role to play in securing and fostering our republican system of self-government.” Id. at 586-87 (emphasis in original).

In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court further explained the right of access to criminal trials, most notably in Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1 (1986) (“Press-Enterprise II”). Drawing from Richmond Newspapers and its progeny, Press-Enterprise II extended the right of access beyond the trial itself and applied it to preliminary hearings. See Id. at 10. The Court reasoned that if a particular proceeding passed the “tests of experience and logic, ” that is, if the proceeding has historically been open to the public, and if “public access plays a significant positive role in the functioning of the particular process, ” a “qualified First Amendment right of public access attaches.” Id. at 8-9.

This qualified right of access can only be overcome “‘by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.’” Id. at 9 (quoting Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501, 510 (1984) (“Press Enterprise I”)).

2.2Common Law Right of Access to Judicial Records

The common law right to inspect and copy judicial records predates the Constitution and was formally recognized in Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589 (1978). It is rooted in many of the same principles that form the basis of the First Amendment right, including the need for accountability of the otherwise independent judiciary, the need of the public to have confidence in the effective administration of justice, and the need for civic debate and behavior to be informed. United States v. Blagojevich, 612 F.3d 558, 559-60 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing United States v. Criden, 648 F.2d 814, 820-21 (3d Cir. 1981); United States v. Amodeo, 71 F.3d 1044, 1048 (2d Cir. 1995)). A qualified right of access attaches automatically to all judicial records, without a showing of any particularized need. See Nixon, 435 U.S. at 597-98. What constitutes a “judicial record” hinges on “whether a document has been filed with the court, or otherwise somehow incorporated or integrated into a district court’s adjudicatory proceedings.” In re Cendant Corp., 260 F.3d 183, 192 (3d Cir. 2001).

Notwithstanding the “automatic” nature of this right of access, it is not absolute. This is so because “[e]very court has supervisory power over its own records and files, ” and access to records can be properly denied “where court files might have become a vehicle for improper purposes”-for example, “to gratify private spite or promote public scandal.” Nixon, 435 U.S. at 603 (internal quotes and citations omitted). Nixon recognized that, while a comprehensive definition of the common law right is unavailable, it is universally accepted that “the decision as to access is one best left to ...

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