A court hearing on whether to unseal sensitive documents involving the alleged sex trafficking of underage girls by Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein — and the possible involvement of his influential friends — will play out in a New York City courtroom next week.
But it may happen behind closed doors, with the news media and public barred — at least in part.
An attorney for lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Tuesday, asking whether the media should be excluded from the proceeding because his oral arguments on behalf of his client could contain sensitive information that has been under seal.
The appeals court had not responded to his concern as of Friday, but if the hearing is closed during his lawyer’s argument, it would represent the latest in a long history of successful efforts to keep details of Epstein’s sex crimes sealed.
Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard, constitutional law expert and criminal defense attorney, represented Epstein, who in 2008 received what many consider an unusually light sentence for sexually abusing dozens of girls at his Palm Beach mansion. Two women — one of whom was underage — have said Epstein and his partner, British socialite and environmentalist Ghislaine Maxwell, directed them to have sex with Dershowitz, 80, and other wealthy, powerful men. Dershowitz and Maxwell have denied the claims.
Oral arguments are scheduled Wednesday to hear an appeal by the Miami Herald and other parties seeking to unseal a 2015 court case involving Epstein and Maxwell. The Herald, as part of an ongoing investigation into Epstein’s case, hopes to shed more light on the scope of Epstein’s crimes, who was involved and whether there was any undue influence that tainted the criminal justice process.
A legal brief supporting the Herald’s appeal was filed in December by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 32 other media companies, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Dow Jones, Fox News, Gannett, Politico, Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting and Tribune Publishing Co.
The case — which was settled in 2017 — involved Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who sued Maxwell in federal court in the Southern District of New York in 2015. Giuffre had asserted that Maxwell and Epstein trafficked her and other underage girls, often at sex parties that Epstein hosted at his homes in New York, New Mexico, Palm Beach and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Maxwell called her a liar. Giuffre sued for defamation.
As the case was litigated, the judge allowed a vast trove of documents, including testimony by witnesses, to be sealed. Dershowitz, having been publicly implicated in Epstein’s crimes by Giuffre, tried unsuccessfully to get the judge to unseal a select number of documents that he says will exonerate him. Blogger Michael Cernovich also filed a motion to release a portion of the sealed documents.
The judge denied their motions in 2016, as the case was still ongoing, saying release of the documents could taint a potential jury pool.
After the case was settled, the Herald filed a more extensive motion, arguing that with the case now closed, all the documents should be made public. The motion, filed in April 2018, came as the Herald was working on an investigative series, Perversion of Justice, which detailed how Epstein and his lawyers manipulated federal prosecutors to obtain one of the most lenient sentences for a child sex offender in history.
Dershowitz’s lawyer, Andrew G. Celli Jr., emphasized to the Herald that Dershowitz is not trying to ban the media from the proceeding; he is simply giving the court a heads up that his arguments could include information that has never been made public because it’s under seal.
“What the letter says very clearly is we intend to make reference to the sealed material in open court, so we want to notify the judges that this is my intention to make my arguments,’’ Celli said. “We want the courtroom to be open so long as we can argue the substance of what we want to unseal.’’
Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, pointed out that since the judges are well aware that sealed documents are at the heart of the appeal, Dershowitz’s request comes across more as a “veiled threat.”
“It’s like ‘if you don’t keep out the media, then we are going to reveal stuff and let the chips fall where they may,’ ’’ she said. “They don’t want it to come out and they don’t want to make a motion and ban the media, so they are hoping the judges do it for them.”
Attorneys for Giuffre also want the case unsealed.
“Ms. Giuffre is a victim of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking organization,’’ her attorney, Paul Cassell, said in a statement attached to the Herald’s appeal. “When she bravely came forward to explain what happened to her at the hands of Epstein and his powerful friends, Epstein’s ‘Madame’ and girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, told the world that Ms. Giuffre was a liar. Ms. Giuffre filed a defamation action.’’
The case was settled in Giuffre’s favor, with Maxwell paying Giuffre millions.
Maxwell wants the case to remain sealed and earlier tried to get the judge to destroy the sealed documents, but her motion was denied earlier this week.
Epstein’s deal, brokered by then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two prostitution charges in state court, and in exchange, Epstein and an untold number of others were given federal immunity. Epstein served just 13 months in the county jail, although much of his incarceration was served at his office in downtown West Palm Beach on “work release.”
Last week, a federal judge ruled that Acosta, now President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, violated the law because he and other prosecutors deliberately kept the deal secret from Epstein’s victims, who are now in their late 20s and early 30s.
Cernovich’s lawyer, Marc J. Randazza, said he has never seen a court seal nearly an entire court record like this.
“I’ve seen partial seals, but I’ve never seen anything where it went quite that far. That in of itself is newsworthy,’’ he said. “What kind of power here is able to influence our court system in such a big way? Something is amiss and I’m glad that journalists are out there looking at it.”