Federal Judge Thinks The Best Fix For An Accidentally Unsealed Court Doc Is Prior Restraint

The Chicago Sun-Times dropped a bombshell on city residents late last month with an article detailing the FBI’s secret recordings of an Illinois politician’s shady business dealings.

The FBI secretly recorded Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan trying to get business for his private law firm from a developer brought to him by Ald. Danny Solis, who was weighing the developer’s request to build a hotel in Chinatown, according to a federal court affidavit obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The affidavit makes clear for the first time that the federal investigation that has snared powerful Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke extends beyond City Hall and into the Illinois statehouse, examining politicians’ longstanding practice of merging personal and political business.

The FBI’s affidavit connected the conversational dots for those reading the court documents.

An FBI agent alleges in the 120-page affidavit: “I understand Solis to mean that by hiring Madigan’s private firm, [the developer] would ensure that Solis and Madigan would take official action benefitting [the developer] in their capacity as public officials.”

Normally, there’s be no story here (meaning here at Techdirt) since this appears to be nothing more than the corruption we’ve come to expect from Illinois politicians. It’s a fine tradition dating back to the city’s founding, but hardly in our wheelhouse.

This would have stayed outside our wheelhouse if not for the judge presiding over this case. No one other than the judge and the involved parties were meant to see the details of these secret recordings. The details are the juiciest parts, though: the FBI got Alderman Solis to wear a wire by leveraging his personal life, which was apparently filled with “massage parlors and Viagra.”

The affidavit submitted by the FBI was supposed to be filed under seal. A clerical error left it exposed and unsealed on the PACER docket for an unknown amount of time. That’s how the Chicago Sun-Times got its hands on it. Greg Hinz at Chicago Business has more details — this time coming from the judge himself.

None of that sat well with Magistrate Judge Young Kim, who court records indicate has been presiding over the Solis matter.

According to my sources, Kim re-closed the affidavit and ordered the Sun-Times not to print what was in it, presumably on grounds that premature publicity could undermine what appears to be an extremely wide-ranging federal probe into City Hall that has been underway for four years or longer.

Here’s where we come in, along with the First Amendment. Judge Kim likely knows his prior restraint is unconstitutional. It couldn’t have escaped him that this is not the proper response to accidentally unsealed court documents. Unfortunately, he’s not the only judge who thinks the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the end result of court clerical errors. But Kim had advance notice from the prosecution side.

Knowledgeable sources also say that Kim’s order came despite sentiment within the U.S. attorney’s office here that a ban on publication, known as prior restraint, would be on shaky legal ground and likely inconsistent with past U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the famed Pentagon Papers case and others.

Kim did it anyway, resulting in the US Press Freedom Tracker taking notice of this unconstitutional blip on its radar. Judge Kim’s order blows right past Supreme Court precedent and attempts to do damage to the First Amendment protections the Chicago Sun-Times enjoys.

Not that any of Kim’s courtroom bluster matters… at least not at this point. The Chicago Sun-Times published its article anyway using the source document the court system failed to keep sealed. And now Chicagoans know yet another of their politicians engaged in questionable — if not illegal — business dealings. Readers are likely unsurprised, but even so, there’s a strong public interest in political corruption, which should easily outweigh anything Judge Kim might try to summon in support of his free speech blindside hit. It’s apparent the US attorney’s office won’t be backing him up, so he’s going to have to go it alone if he’s going to take a run at contempt of court hearings. Good luck with that.

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