Criminal Justice

Bid to reseal document inspired metaphors, judge says: 'Bells have rung, dogs barked, horses bolted'


A federal judge has refused to reseal a 2006 search warrant affidavit that was mistakenly made public on Pacer and used by the Philadelphia Inquirer to defend a defamation lawsuit by a union official.

U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Wednesday refused to reseal the probable cause affidavit for the FBI search of the home of John Dougherty, the Legal Intelligencer reports.

Dougherty, the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 98, was never charged. He sued after the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that he was being investigated. After the newspaper cited the affidavit, the document was sealed and then unsealed in state court. The media covered the affidavit and posted it on websites.

Pratter said Dougherty could have appealed the decision to unseal in state court, and Dougherty’s concerns don’t outweigh the federalism concerns. Pratter began her opinion with a reference to lawyers’ cliches.

“Like a feline with escapist tendencies, this dispute has inspired many metaphors,” Pratter wrote in her opinion. “Bells have rung, dogs barked, horses bolted from barns and cats scurried out bags and up trees. Toothpaste has been irreversibly evicted from its tubular abode and the egg scrambled. A document supposed to have been seen by just a few has now been blasted into cyberspace where, we know, nothing ever dies.”

Lawyers for Dougherty told the Inquirer that the case involves serious questions of federal supremacy, and issues in the case warrant consideration by the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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