420 P.3d 343 (Hawai‘i 2018), SCPW-17-0000927, Grube v. Trader

Docket Nº:SCPW-17-0000927
Citation:420 P.3d 343, 142 Hawai‘i 412
Opinion Judge:POLLACK, J.
Party Name:Nick GRUBE, Petitioner, v. The Honorable Rom A. TRADER, Judge of the Circuit Court of the First Circuit, State of Hawai‘i, Respondent Judge, and State of Hawai‘i; Alan Ahn; and Tiffany Masunaga, Respondents.
Attorney:Robert Brian Black for petitioner Robyn B. Chun, Honolulu, for respondent judge the Honorable Rom A. Trader Duane M. Kokesch for respondent State of Hawai‘i Andrew T. Park for respondent Alan Ahn William A. Harrison, Honolulu, for respondent Tiffany Masunaga
Judge Panel:RECKTENWALD, C.J., McKENNA, POLLACK, AND WILSON, JJ., AND CIRCUIT JUDGE VIOLA, IN PLACE OF NAKAYAMA, J., RECUSED
Case Date:June 05, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of Hawai'i
 
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Page 343

420 P.3d 343 (Hawai‘i 2018)

142 Hawai‘i 412

Nick GRUBE, Petitioner,

v.

The Honorable Rom A. TRADER, Judge of the Circuit Court of the First Circuit, State of Hawai‘i, Respondent Judge,

and

State of Hawai‘i; Alan Ahn; and Tiffany Masunaga, Respondents.

No. SCPW-17-0000927

Supreme Court of Hawai‘i

June 5, 2018

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ORIGINAL PROCEEDING (CR. NO. 15-1-1338)

Robert Brian Black for petitioner

Robyn B. Chun, Honolulu, for respondent judge the Honorable Rom A. Trader

Duane M. Kokesch for respondent State of Hawai‘i

Andrew T. Park for respondent Alan Ahn

William A. Harrison, Honolulu, for respondent Tiffany Masunaga

RECKTENWALD, C.J., McKENNA, POLLACK, AND WILSON, JJ., AND CIRCUIT JUDGE VIOLA, IN PLACE OF NAKAYAMA, J., RECUSED

OPINION

POLLACK, J.

Petitioner Nick Grube filed a petition for writs of prohibition and mandamus (petition) to obtain access to judicial records and documents related to a circuit court criminal proceeding held on September 9, 2016. These court documents and records were sealed, and have remained sealed, by a series of circuit court orders. The petition also seeks an order prohibiting the circuit court judge from requiring Grube to retain an attorney in order to assert a constitutional right of access to judicial records.

Upon our review of the procedures employed by the circuit court, we conclude that the court did not provide adequate notice and opportunity for interested persons objecting to the sealing to be heard prior to issuing its order and failed to sufficiently articulate the reasoning supporting the order in its findings. In addition, upon reviewing the sealed records and documents, we hold that the substantive requirements for sealing were not met in this case because the record fails to demonstrate a compelling need sufficient to overcome the public’s constitutional right of access.

We further hold that, because the constitutional right of access inheres in every member of the public and Grube asserted this interest as an individual, Grube had a right to represent himself in the unsealing proceedings. The circuit court therefore also erred by refusing to allow Grube to appear pro se and requiring him to obtain counsel.

Accordingly, we grant the petition and order that the circuit court unseal the documents— provided, however, that the effective date of our directive shall be ten days after the filing of this opinion, unless within the ten days the State requests a hearing to

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provide additional evidence to demonstrate that the documents or some portion thereof must remain sealed to serve a governmental interest of sufficient gravity to overcome the public’s constitutional right of access. Following any such hearing, the circuit court shall promptly prepare specific findings in conformance with the substantive requirements set forth in this opinion if these requirements have been met; otherwise our order shall take immediate effect. We further order that Grube be permitted to represent himself in any further proceedings on this matter.

I. BACKGROUND

A. The Criminal Case

Alan Ahn, a Honolulu police officer, and Tiffany Masunaga, his girlfriend, were charged by indictment in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit (circuit court) with multiple drug-related offenses on August 26, 2015.1 Ahn has since pleaded no contest and been sentenced to a sixty-day jail term as a condition of a four-year probationary term. By contrast, the public record indicates that Masunaga’s case is still pending as of this filing, and no disposition of the charges is reflected.

1. Sealing of Records, Files, and Proceedings Relating to the September 9, 2016 Hearing

On Friday, September 9, 2016, the circuit court held a hearing scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m., the nature and scope of which is not discernible from the public record.2 Following the proceeding, the circuit court entered an order sealing the entire legal file in the case. On September 16, the court filed a second order superseding its September 9 sealing order.

Then, on October 11, 2016, the circuit court issued a third order setting aside its September 9 and September 16 sealing orders. The court concluded that "[u]pon further review ... the prior orders were overly broad in that they resulted in the sealing of the entire legal file pertaining to both Defendants." The court redefined the scope of the previous order to seal "those documents, court minutes, transcripts and other information relating to the September 9, 2016 proceeding," including the two previous orders that it had set aside.

In its October 11 order, the circuit court stated that it had been advised that the proceedings in this case related to potentially one or more ongoing investigations. Without providing further details, the court concluded that public disclosure of the September 9, 2016 proceeding was substantially likely to interfere with these ongoing investigations and that less drastic alternatives to partially sealing the record were not viable to maintain the integrity of the law enforcement operations. The court thus held that the "the public’s right of access must yield to the compelling investigatory needs of law enforcement." The court further directed the State and Masunaga to timely inform it when circumstances change such that rescinding the order would be appropriate.

As a result of the court’s order, all documents and information relating to the September 9, 2016 hearing remained fully sealed and inaccessible to the public, including the two previous sealing orders.3

2. Motion to Unseal Records

On September 29, 2017, Grube, a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Inc. (Civil Beat), filed a motion to unseal "whatever documents were sealed" by the October 11, 2016 order.

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The motion was based on the "constitutional right of access provided by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and article I, section 4 of the Hawai‘i Constitution."

a. October 31, 2017 Hearing

A hearing on the motion to unseal was held on October 31, 2017. At the opening of the hearing, Grube identified himself as "Nick Grube, Honolulu Civil Beat." When the court then asked if he was representing Civil Beat’s interest in the matter, Grube responded "Uh-huh." The court explained to Grube that under Hawai‘i law, business entities must be represented by an attorney. Grube objected, stating that he made the motion on his own and would like to proceed pro se . Citing the manner in which the motion had been captioned,4 the court declined to allow Grube to represent himself: "[A]lthough you, yourself, may be partially making this request, it was filed under the caption you, as representing Civil Beat." The court continued the hearing to November 7, 2016, instructed Grube to make inquiries as to whether Civil Beat would retain an attorney, and ordered the State and the defendants to file responses to Grube’s motion to unseal.

b. Responses to Motion to Unseal

Masunaga and Ahn filed statements of no opposition to Grube’s motion. Masunaga indicated that she had not been fully advised by her prior counsel regarding the motion to seal and had not given prior counsel permission to make representations regarding the motion on her behalf. She also stated that she believes the sealing request was made to protect certain individuals related to the prosecutor then assigned to the case, whom her prior counsel was also representing in a separate criminal matter in federal court.

The State filed an opposition to Grube’s motion, arguing that the circuit court properly identified the State’s compelling interest in preserving the integrity of investigations and sufficiently tailored its order to serve that interest. The opposition included a declaration by a deputy prosecuting attorney averring that the investigations identified in the sealing order remained ongoing.5

c. November 7, 2017 Hearing on the Motion to Unseal

On November 7, 2017, the court held the continued hearing on the motion to unseal. At the outset of the hearing, Grube, through his counsel, again objected to the circuit court requiring him to retain counsel. Counsel clarified that he was representing Grube in his personal capacity and not Civil Beat, and he further stated that Grube was asserting his personal constitutional right of access. The court responded that the contents of the motion and the manner in which it was captioned led the court to believe Grube was representing Civil Beat’s interests, which only a licensed attorney was permitted to do under relevant Hawai‘i law.

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