Reporter sues for access to Mariner East pipeline records

Represented by Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, freelance investigative journalist Daniel Schwartz filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania State Police to obtain records related to the Mariner East Pipeline protests.

Schwartz seeks intervention from the Commonwealth Court to enforce a Final Determination from the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records that ordered the Pennsylvania State Police to produce certain law enforcement officers’ communications. 

The lawsuit argues that Schwartz is entitled to access to these records, which relate to a matter of significant public interest: the Mariner East pipeline protests and the interaction of police with such protests.

“I’ve seen again and again in my reporting that access to public records is essential to both inform the public and hold the government accountable,” Schwartz said. “It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get access.”

The Pennsylvania State Police denied Schwartz access to certain records in April 2021, claiming that they did not exist.  In June 2021, the Office of Open Records ordered the Pennsylvania State Police either to produce the requested records or provide an affidavit describing that it conducted an adequate search for them. Since then, the Pennsylvania State Police has failed to comply with the order.

Clinic student Steven Marzagalli, who took the lead in drafting the Petition filed with supervision from attorneys at the Clinic and the Reporters Committee, said, “I joined Cornell’s First Amendment Clinic for two reasons: the opportunity to learn from talented litigators, and to help the First Amendment bring us closer to the transparent ideals it promises. I am grateful to our client Dan for allowing me the opportunity to help him demand this transparency from the Pennsylvania State Police.”

Paula Knudsen Burke of the Reporters Committee, Associate Clinic Director Jared Carter, and Heather Murray, Managing Attorney of the Clinic’s Local Journalism Project, worked with Marzagalli on the enforcement action.


Cornell Clinic Files Amicus Brief to Open Domestic Violence Proceedings in Puerto Rico

By Cornell Law School Staff

December 21, 2021

Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court on December 3, 2021, arguing on behalf of media organizations that a Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruling undermines the press’s vital role in informing the public about our nation’s courts and the development of domestic violence law in particular.

Four days after the clinic filed its amicus brief, the Puerto Rico Solicitor General issued a statement agreeing that the sealed recordings should be made public. Three days later, the chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court announced a new court watch program that will permit volunteers to observe some domestic violence proceedings.[1]

The amicus brief supports a petition filed by the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access clinic on behalf of the Asociación de Periodistas de Puerto Rico (the Puerto Rico Journalists Association). The petition seeks review of a high-profile domestic violence case that resulted in widespread public protests in Puerto Rico. Those protests came on the heels of the discovery of Andrea Cristina Ruiz Costas’ partially burned body and a confession by her ex-boyfriend. Shortly before her murder, Ms. Costas had unsuccessfully sought protection from Puerto Rican courts, who thrice denied her requests. When the Yale clinic sought access to the recordings of the proceedings in the trial court, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court denied access to all domestic violence proceedings and records without any opportunity to brief or argue for the right of access.

Following the solicitor general’s recent statement supporting unsealing and the chief justice’s statement announcing a court watch program, the Yale Clinic requested that the court grant certiorari (vacate the decision below), and remand with instructions to consider whether a court rule at issue, as construed by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, violates the First Amendment right of access.

The amicus brief the Cornell clinic filed argues that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision’s blanket closure of civil domestic violence proceedings is out of step with the presumptive openness of the vast majority of these proceedings nationwide and with a long tradition of access to their historical counterpart, divorce proceedings.

“This decision denies the press and the public an opportunity to fulfill their essential role of holding the judiciary accountable for the failure to protect domestic violence victims. Shrouding domestic violence proceedings in secrecy would make it impossible for the public to effectively campaign for what may be much-needed legal reforms,” said Heather Murray, Managing Attorney of the Clinic’s Local Journalism Project.

“Journalists routinely rely on domestic violence records and access to judicial proceedings in their reporting. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s decision closing all domestic violence proceedings hampers journalists’ ability to do their jobs,” Clinic Director Mark Jackson said. Clinic students Tim Birchfield and Ashley Stamegna, Clinic Associate Director Jared Carter, Jackson, and Murray worked on the amicus effort.

If the petition is ultimately successful, journalists will win access to Puerto Rico domestic violence proceedings.

[1] The statements referenced above are annexed to the Supplemental Brief filed by the Yale Clinic on Dec. 16, 2021.

Local Journalism Project News Uncategorized

Clinic Student argues in the 4th Department

Ashley Stamegna, a student at the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, argued an appeal before a panel of New York’s Appellate Division, Fourth Department on Ashley made the compelling, important case that our client, The Batavian, should have been granted access to an attorney disqualification motion in a family court matter and now should be provided a transcript of that proceeding. Ashley has been a forceful advocate for local journalism in her three semesters with our clinic. Congratulations also go to our clinic alumnus, Christopher Johnson, and current student Tim Birchfield, both of whom worked with Ashley on the brief which a Judge on the panel said in open court was “exceedingly well written”. Final congrats to Heather Murray, the Managing Attorney of our clinic’s Local Journalism Project, for supervising this important matter.