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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Why does Nassau have a secret court docket?

There’s a secret court docket of at least nine cases in Nassau County — and, thus far, no one in the state court system seems willing to do anything about it.

Who is involved in the cases? What are they about? Have they been settled? Are they ongoing?

Don’t know, can’t know.

Because judges and court employees in Nassau have hidden the cases from public view — a practice that, as Newsday’s Will Van Sant noted in a story earlier this week, runs counter to core principles of American courts.

In Nassau, however, Chief Deputy Clerk John Ferretti confirmed that judges had sealed case numbers.

Which makes it impossible for the clerk’s office to reference what’s happening in the cases on the public docket.

Ferretti told Newsday that he did not know how long the practice had been going on.

Let’s look to Suffolk for comparison.

Do judges and court employees seal certain case numbers, thus creating a secret docket in that county, too?

No, Suffolk Deputy County Chief Clerk Chris Como told Newsday.

That would seem to make Nassau an outlier, despite a unanimous 2004 decision by a federal appellate court in a Connecticut case that secret dockets violate the public’s constitutional right to court access.

Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in legal ethics, put it succinctly. “There can be no private justice in American courtrooms,” he told Newsday, via email.

So why doesn’t anyone in New York’s court system seem bothered by what’s happening in Nassau?

A spokesman for New York State’s Unified Court System declined to make Chief Judge Janet DiFiore available to answer Van Sant’s questions about Nassau’s secret docket. Instead, the spokesman, Lucian Chalfen, sent a statement saying that neither DiFiore nor Chief Administrator Lawrence K. Marks had authority to review decisions by individual judges to secretly docket cases.

OK. But, as Daniel Klau, a First Amendment attorney involved in the Connecticut litigation, pointed out, why wouldn’t the judges address questions about unconstitutional practices in courts within their jurisdictions? As he said, “A judicial system cannot run a secret court and not answer questions.”

Judges often seal information in cases. But there’s a process for that — which involves the judge putting into writing reasons for sealing the information.

So why go to secret docketing instead?

The best Van Sant could get — via a public computer search in the clerk’s office — was that some cases had been secreted away “for security reasons.”

But in September, counsel for the state office of court administration, in a letter to Newsday’s attorney, stated that “in neither Nassau nor Suffolk counties are court matters left unindexed for security reasons.”

So, again, why does Nassau have a secret docket?

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