The Fourth Circuit ruled today, August 1, that the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia need not open files relating to a criminal investigation into the September 2001 terrorist attacks.  The suit, Media General Operations v. Buchanan, was brought against the US Magistrate Judge in Alexandria who originally ordered the records sealed in March 2003.  Media General, supported by numerous media outlets (including ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and others) as amici curiae, argued that the materials were within the aegis of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Baltimore Sun v. Goetz, 886 F.2d 60 (4th Cir. 1989), making the vast majority of such records open to the public.

While the subject of the ruling is newsworthy, so is the time it took to release the opinion.  The case was argued orally to a panel of the court on April 2, 2003, just three weeks after the magistrate judge entered the sealing order.  That means that the case has been pending for 28 months.  And given the gravity of the issues involved, it is unlikely that this will be the end of the road; the array of appellants and amici may reasonably be expected to file a petition for rehearing, along with a suggestion for rehearing en banc.  Then there’s another potential stop in Washington . . .

I haven’t seen any major media coverage of this ruling yet, but one may reliably anticipate suggestions from some of them that the delay was perpetrated deliberately in order to frustrate the appellants’ purpose.  I do not believe any such theory, but disgruntled litigants often ascribe ulterior motives in the immediate wake of a loss.