In an important victory for public access to judicial records, U.S. District Court John McConnell, Jr. today ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to release thousands of pages of documents in support of the ACLU of Rhode Island’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit on behalf of local journalist Philip Eil.

Eil had been stymied for years in his effort to obtain from the DEA evidence disclosed at a major prescription drug-dealing trial. In ordering release of the records, while allowing redactions of certain personal information, the judge wrote: “Public scrutiny of the workings of government – including the judiciary – is vitally important to the proper functioning of our democracy.” The case was handled by ACLU volunteer attorneys Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from the law firm of Nixon Peabody.

Eil’s FOIA request involved the evidence used to convict Dr. Paul Volkman, whom the Department of Justice has called the “largest physician dispenser of oxycodone in the United States from 2003 to 2005.” Volkman was indicted on 22 drug trafficking-related counts in 2007, and, in 2011, after an eight-week federal court trial in Ohio that included 70 witnesses and more than 220 exhibits, he was convicted of, among other charges, prescribing medications that caused the overdose deaths of four patients. In 2012, Volkman was sentenced to four consecutive life terms in federal prison — one of the lengthiest criminal sentences for a physician in U.S. history.

Volkman attended college and medical school with Eil’s father, and, in 2009, Eil began conducting research for a book about the case. After Volkman’s trial ended, Eil requested access to the trial evidence from the clerk of the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. This request was denied, as were Eil’s subsequent requests to various other court officials. He then filed his FOIA request in February 2012, but did not receive a final response until more than three years had passed. Even so, the DEA withheld more than 85% of the pages it processed, and many of the pages released were significantly redacted.

The order allows the DEA to redact certain personally identifiable information contained in the documents, many of which are medical records. However, in ordering release of the bulk of the documents, the judge noted that “the public has a strong interest in staying apprised of the government’s investigation and the judicial proceedings that led to” Volkman’s conviction. He pointed to recent examples of “tenacious journalists exposing potential flaws in criminal cases.”

In response to the ruling, Eil said today: “Courtroom transparency is a pillar of American democracy. And, from my very first requests for these exhibits after the Volkman trial ended in 2011, I had a simple goal in mind: make this historically significant trial as accessible to the public as possible. After all, Dr. Paul Volkman was prosecuted and convicted in our name, and with our tax dollars. We, the people, have a right to see who we are sending to prison for life, and the evidence that led the jury to that decision. I am overwhelmingly grateful to Judge McConnell for making this decision, and to the Rhode Island ACLU and my attorneys, Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from Nixon/Peabody, for their invaluable help with this fight for transparency. Today is a long-overdue victory for journalism, transparency, and government accountability.”

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown stated: “Judge McConnell’s decision is a ringing endorsement of the public’s right to know and the importance of an open judicial process. We can only hope that federal agencies like the DEA will take more seriously their obligations under FOIA in the future.”

The decision is available here. Background information about the case can be found here.