A New York federal appeals court on Wednesday ordered the unsealing of up to 2,000 pages of judicial documents that are expected to show evidence relating to whether New York financier Jeffrey Epstein and his partner, Ghislaine Maxwell, were recruiting underage girls and young women as part of an international sex trafficking operation.
The decision comes two days after the Miami Herald urged the court to issue a ruling in the civil case in the wake of last week’s Justice Department announcement in the federal criminal case that it would not void Epstein’s controversial 2008 non-prosecution agreement.
Using others as recruiters, Epstein lured underage girls to his waterfront estate in Palm Beach from 1997 to 2006 under the guise that he was hiring them to give him massages. He sexually abused them, the girls told authorities, then paid them to recruit other girls, mostly 13 to 16 years old. Epstein, now 66, was never federally prosecuted, having received immunity in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges in state court in 2008.
Maxwell, 57, the daughter of the late publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, has never been charged with a crime and has denied allegations that she acted as a “madam’’ of the operation. She nevertheless fought to keep the records in the New York civil case sealed.
In addition to the Miami Herald, assorted other news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to release the documents. Social media blogger Michael Cernovich and Epstein’s attorney, Alan Dershowitz, also sought unsealing of some of the records.
The New York case, filed in 2015, was brought by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who claims that she was trafficked by Epstein and Maxwell to wealthy and powerful politicians, lawyers, academics and government leaders when she was underage. Giuffre sued Maxwell for defamation after Maxwell publicly denounced her as a liar.
The case was settled in Giuffre’s favor in 2017, several sources have told the Herald. Nearly all the documents filed in connection with the case, however, were sealed. The Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Maxwell’s lawyer, Ty Gee, for comment Wednesday.
The Herald, as part of a November investigation called “Perversion of Justice,” went to court to unseal all the records in January. A lower court ruled against the newspaper, and the appeals court heard arguments by the Herald, Cernovich and Dershowitz in March.
Giuffre’s attorney, David Boies, said the appeals court reaffirmed basic legal principles involving an open judiciary.
“The most important point is the court is saying that facts that are brought out in court proceedings that go to improper and, in some cases, unlawful conduct should not be concealed from the public,’’ Boies said.
“The court is saying the public has a right to know what the evidence is in cases involving the public interest. Cases of sexual abuse and sex trafficking are cases in which the public has an obvious and compelling interest.’’
In its decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that a lower district court erred when it issued a blanket sealing of the case, which essentially allowed all the parties to file everything under wraps.
“The District Court failed to review the documents individually and produce ‘specific, on‐the‐record findings that sealing is necessary to preserve higher values.’ Instead, the District Court made generalized statements about the record as a whole. This ... was legal error,’’ said Judge Jose A. Cabranes, writing for the three-member panel.
The court, in a 2-1 decision, said the portion of the case involving summary judgment materials (167 documents, 2,000 pages) should be unsealed forthwith, except for minor redactions. The balance of the case history — involving perhaps thousands of additional pages — will be reviewed by the lower court. In her dissent, Judge Rosemary Pooler concurred with unsealing the documents, but disagreed with how they should be reviewed.
Cabranes said that the public’s right to access outweighs the privacy rights of individuals seeking to keep information secret. However, he also cautioned the press to “exercise restraint in covering potentially defamatory allegations,’’ pointing out that documents in court records should not necessarily be considered fact.
“When faithfully observing its best traditions, the print and electronic media ‘contributes to public understanding of the rule of law’ and ‘validates [its] claim of functioning as surrogates for the public.’ At the same time, the media does the public a profound disservice when it reports on parties’ allegations uncritically,’’ he wrote.
The decision could still be appealed by two unnamed individuals who are concerned that their names will be released in connection with the case.
The court’s determination comes as the victims continue to wage another legal battle in federal court. Last week, in a 35-page filing, federal prosecutors in Georgia declared that they would not set aside Epstein’s federal non-prosecution agreement, dealing a blow to victims who wanted it nullified.
The Herald, in its letter to the New York appeals court, said the Georgia filing means the Justice Department has no intention of allowing Epstein’s victims and the public to examine the facts of Epstein’s case and reach their own conclusions. Herald attorney Sanford L. Bohrer said the Georgia filing shows that it is even more important that the appeals court act to unseal the New York case.
In February, a federal judge in Florida, Kenneth A. Marra, ruled that the government violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act when it failed to inform Epstein’s victims that prosecutors had disposed of the case. He ordered prosecutors and lawyers for the victims to come up with a possible remedy. The victims’ lawyers are expected to file their response next week. Epstein, who is an intervenor in the case, is also expected to file arguments.
The Herald’s investigation detailed how federal prosecutors, led by then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, worked together with Epstein’s high-powered legal team to give him and an undisclosed number of other people federal immunity for crimes committed against underage girls.
“We continue to believe that justice was not well served by the secrecy cloaking nearly every aspect of Mr. Epstein’s alleged sex crimes,” said Casey Frank, the Miami Herald’s senior editor for investigations. “We are all better off when allegations as serious as those against Mr. Epstein are held up to the light rather than buried.”
Giuffre has claimed that Epstein and Maxwell forced her to have sex with a number of powerful, politically connected men, among them Prince Andrew and Dershowitz. Both have vehemently denied the allegations. Dershowitz says that there are documents in the Maxwell file that will prove that Giuffre has wrongly accused him.
“When the materials are unsealed, the public will see the evidence in my accuser’s own words that prove I was framed to get money, and that I am totally innocent, as I have consistently asserted since the day I was falsely accused,’’ Dershowitz said in a statement.
“My false accuser’s lawyers will try to spin this, but no amount of self-serving spin can deny the reality of her own written admissions.’’
Giuffre filed a defamation lawsuit in New York federal court against Dershowitz in April, claiming that the famed Harvard law professor has falsely said in public statements that Giuffre lied for financial gain. That case, which Dershowitz wants dismissed, is still pending.
Acosta, who is now President Donald Trump’s labor secretary, has said the deal was a fair one because it ensured that Epstein, who agreed to plead guilty to state charges, would serve some time in a county jail and required that he register as a sex offender. Epstein served 13 months in the Palm Beach County stockade, receiving liberal work release privileges despite rules that barred work release for sex offenders.