Reporters enter secret 9-11 case

A national journalism group is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to open sealed records in a secret case related to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Mohamed K. Bellahouel, a resident of south Florida.

Bellahouel was detained by federal authorities in 2001 in conjunction with their post-attack terrorism investigation.

The journalists, in their brief, stated the case is the “most egregious recent example of an alarming trend toward excessive secrecy in the federal courts.”

The group’s attorneys wrote: “This case has been conducted in extraordinary, and unjustifiable secrecy. Even the limited available information demonstrates a cavalier disregard for First Amendment values by the 11th Circuit and district court [in Miami].”

A report in the Miami Daily Business Review said not long after the brief was filed the justices of the Supreme Court indicated their interest in the case, which is listed on the docket only as MKB vs. Warden, et al.

The court instructed the Solicitor General Theodore Olson to waive the right of the U.S. Justice Department to respond to Bellahouel’s arguments for review of his case. The Justice Department sought to present a written reply to Bellahouel’s petition for a writ of certiorari by Dec. 3.

The newspaper said in January 2002 the federal public defender’s Miami office filed a habeas corpus petition in an effort to gain Bellahouel’s release. Bellahouel was freed in March 2002, but he and the public defender’s office have yet been unable to open records of the case.

The Business Review first reported the case in March of this year after a docketing clerk’s mistake at the appeals court revealed its existence. Further information was discovered in July when the public defender’s office filed Bellahouel’s petition for a Supreme Court review of a judgment by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling directed that the case be kept secret.

In its brief, the reporters committee asks the high court to declare the appeals court ruling unconstitutional. The committee encourages the court to use the case “to clarify that the public has a constitutional right of access to habeas corpus proceedings and records.”

Richard Ovelman, who is a well-known First Amendment lawyer in South Florida, told the Business Review that the reporters’ intervention would carry some weight with the justices. He said such briefs usually aren’t filed until after the court agrees to review a case, but an early filing in an important case can “assist the court” in granting a review.

“It can do that for a couple of reasons,” Ovelman said. “One is that it can show the importance of the case—and sometimes it raises points that the party to the case either can’t raise or doesn’t know how to raise.”

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