Colorado Independent takes open records fight to SCOTUS

The Colorado Independent: The Colorado Independent on Friday took its fight for open records to the United States Supreme Court.

The Denver-based nonprofit news outlet, represented pro-bono by First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg and the law firm of Ballard Spahr, filed a 112-page petition asking the high court to review a unanimous June ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court that denied the Independent’s request to unseal court records related to prosecutorial misconduct in the capital case against Colorado death-row inmate Sir Mario Owens.

Public access to judicial records “plays a vital role in assuring that the objectives of a criminal trial are achieved,” the petition states, arguing that the public cannot effectively hold the judicial branch accountable without access to court records and transcripts that shed light on its decision-making.

The petition opens with a quote from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee: “Public confidence cannot long be maintained where important judicial decisions are made behind closed doors and then announced in conclusive terms to the public, with the record supporting the court’s decision sealed from public view.”

The case at issue involves the prosecution of Owens — one of three death-row inmates in the state, all of whom are black men — in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, whose DA’s office is led by Republican District Attorney and current attorney general candidate George Brauchler.

In late 2017, District Court Judge Christopher Munch issued a 1,500-page order in which he upheld Owens’ conviction and death sentence, but found a pattern of misconduct by state prosecutors who, he said, withheld evidence that might have helped Owens. Attorneys for Owens tried to have Brauchler’s office disqualified from the case, but the judge refused.

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