Ninth Circuit Holds District Court Decision Refusing to Seal Competency Proceedings Not Subject to Interlocutory Appeal

United States v. Guerrero, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 18504 (9 th Cir. Cal. Aug. 31, 2012)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to hear the interlocutory appeal of the district court’s denial of defendant’s motion to seal his competency proceedings under the collateral order doctrine.

James Guerrero and a co-defendant were indicted in 2008 for the first degree murder of a United States correctional officer and the government filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty. In April 2011, the defendant filed a motion for a hearing to determine his competency to stand trial, along with six exhibits, including a 27-page social history and a 77-page memorandum describing defense counsels’ interactions with the defendant. The defendant moved the court to seal the evidentiary hearing, all exhibits, post-hearing briefs and any detailed findings of fact. The district court denied the motion to seal the proceedings and documents, finding an overriding public interest in criminal competency proceedings, and scheduled the competency hearing. The court did issue a protective order prohibiting certain privileged and confidential information from being used at trial. The defendant thereupon sought an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

As a general rule, an appellate court may hear appeals only from a district court’s final decision concluding litigation. A court may review an intermediate decision under the collateral order doctrine only when the decision 1) has conclusively determined the disputed question, 2) resolved an important issue completely separate from the merits of the case, and 3) would be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. A decision that is effectively unreviewable on appeal is one that would imperil a substantial public interest or some particular value of high order, public access to criminal competency proceedings being one such interest.

The defendant argued in this case that once his personal history was publicly disclosed at the competency hearing it would intrude on the attorney/client privilege, taint the jury pool and invade his and his family’s privacy, and was thus effectively unreviewable. The Ninth Circuit found in this case that the first two prongs of the standard had been met. The issue of whether to seal the competency proceedings had been conclusively determined and the competency issue was separate on the merits from the criminal proceeding. However, the Court found that the decision whether to seal the competency proceeding could be adequately vindicated on appeal through reversal of a conviction and the ordering of a new trial. Moreover, other avenues were also available to protect the defendant’s interests including a petition for writ of mandamus asking a court to seal the records, rigorous jury screening, possible relocation of the trial, and entry of protective orders, prohibiting the use or disclosure of certain documents. The Ninth Circuit therefore denied the defendant’s appeal and remanded the case for a determination of the defendant’s competency and further trial on the merits.

Found in DMHL Volume 31 Issue 6