A federal appeals court has ordered the release of sealed court records pertaining to billionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged sex ring—spelling a victory for the victims, whose lawyers said the documents will prove Epstein trafficked underage girls to his famous friends.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled certain records in a defamation lawsuit filed by accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre against Epstein’s alleged madam, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, should be made public record.
In its opinion, the panel vacated a Manhattan federal judge’s decision to keep the records secret and ordered the summary judgment record in the 2017 case to be unsealed—with minimal redactions—after it issues a mandate closing the case. The court also remanded the case to the district court for a review of the remaining sealed materials.
The court stated that “upon reviewing the summary judgment materials in connection with this appeal, we find that there is no countervailing privacy interest sufficient to justify their continued sealing.”
A timeline for when the summary judgment record would be unsealed isn’t immediately clear.
“We applaud the Second Circuit's decision to unseal the materials in the Guiffre v. Maxwell case,” said Sigrid McCawley, a lawyer for Giuffre, in a statement. “This ruling is a watershed moment that helps victims of sexual abuse. It unequivocally stands for the proposition that information cannot be hidden in court filings and that the public has the right to know about the abuse of victims.”
As The Daily Beast reported, the Miami Herald had asked a federal judge to release all sealed or redacted documents in Giuffre’s case, which was filed in the Southern District of New York.
Epstein’s lawyer and friend, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, and right-wing podcaster Michael Cernovich also asked the court to unseal specific records. (Dershowitz argues the release of such documents will reveal Giuffre fabricated allegations that she was coerced into having sex with him.)
In March, two mystery parties filed court papers supporting Maxwell’s efforts to keep the records sealed. Those individuals were identified only as “J. Doe” and “John Doe.” An attorney for John Doe wrote that “wholesale unsealing of the Summary Judgment Materials will almost certainly disclose unadjudicated allegations against third persons—allegations that may be the product of false statements or, perhaps, simply mistake, confusion, or failing memories of events alleged to have occurred over a decade and half ago.”
The panel’s order comes amid other Epstein-related court battles.
Federal prosecutors want a judge to uphold Epstein’s controversial 2007 plea agreement, which allowed him to plead guilty to state charges for his alleged abuse of dozens of underage girls in Palm Beach, Florida.
Earlier this year, the judge ruled Epstein’s deal violated federal law because it was kept secret from the victims, who never knew of the negotiations between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Epstein’s legal team.
The victims have asked the court to rescind the immunity provisions of Epstein’s non-prosecution agreement, which protected him and his alleged co-conspirators from facing federal charges and decades behind bars. In court filings, they said they want the 66-year-old Epstein to face federal prosecution for his alleged sex-trafficking crimes.
Meanwhile, in April, Giuffre filed a defamation complaint against Dershowitz. As part of that case, a new accuser named Maria Farmer came forward to say Epstein and Maxwell sexually assaulted her, and her underage sister, on different occasions in the 1990s.
For years, Giuffre has claimed that Epstein forced her to become his “sex slave” and loaned her out to his famous and powerful friends, including Dershowitz and Prince Andrew. (Both men have vehemently denied the accusations.)
She claims she was 15 and working a summer job at Mar-a-Lago when Maxwell recruited her to become a masseuse for Epstein. After Giuffre’s claims made international headlines, Maxwell issued statements calling the accusations “obvious lies.”
In September 2015, Giuffre sued Maxwell for defamation in New York federal court, and a total of 167 documents in the case were filed under seal. Maxwell’s motion for summary judgment was filed in January 2017.
Two months later, the district court denied Maxwell’s motion and issued a heavily redacted 76-page opinion, the appeals court noted in Wednesday’s opinion.
The case was settled on the eve of trial in May 2017.
In its opinion on Wednesday, the appellate court included a footnote that hinted at what information might be removed from the “minimally redacted” summary judgment record.
“Upon issuance of our mandate, a minimally redacted version of the summary judgment record will be made accessible on the Court of Appeals docket,” the judges stated. “We have implemented minimal redactions to protect personally identifying information such as personal phone numbers, contact lists, birth dates, and social security numbers. We have also redacted the names of alleged minor victims of sexual abuse from deposition testimony and police reports, as well as deposition responses concerning intimate matters where the questions were likely only permitted—and the responses only compelled—because of a strong expectation of continued confidentiality.”
The appeals court’s order said the lower court’s decision that “privacy interests outweigh the presumption of public access” when it comes to the case’s thousands of sealed pages “amounts to an abuse of discretion.”
“In light of the District Court’s failure to conduct an individualized review of the sealed materials, it is necessary to do so now. We believe the District Court is best situated to conduct this review,” the opinion stated.
The judges concluded with “a cautionary note” both to the media and the public about the records they ordered unsealed.
“Materials submitted by parties to a court should be understood for what they are. They do not reflect the court’s own findings. Rather, they are prepared by parties seeking to advance their own interests in an adversarial process,” the panel stated. “Although affidavits and depositions are offered ‘under penalty of perjury,’ it is in fact exceedingly rare for anyone to be prosecuted for perjury in a civil proceeding.”
They lauded the press’s “vital role in ensuring the public right of access” but said “the media does the public a profound disservice when it reports on parties’ allegations uncritically.”
“We therefore urge the media to exercise restraint in covering potentially defamatory allegations, and we caution the public to read such accounts with discernment,” the judges concluded.