Pursuant to congressional mandate, since
March 2011 the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has maintained
an electronic database of reports of harm associated with consumer
products. This database serves a crucial function in helping alert
consumers to dangerous products; before the database existed, as Public Citizen has reported, the CPSC took on average more than six months to report product hazards.
In the fall of 2011, a company calling itself “Company Doe” sued the
CPSC to keep a report about one of its products out of the database, and it also sought to litigate its case under seal and without revealing its name. Public Citizen, along with Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports), objected to the seal.
Just yesterday, the court released a decision granting
Company Doe’s motion to seal crucial portions of the case and proceed
under a pseudonym. The decision also granted judgment to Company Doe on
the basis of nine months’ worth of proceedings conducted entirely in
secret. Crucial portions of the decision discussing the facts are blacked out in the version
released to the public, so it's impossible to comprehend or assess the district court's application of law to fact.
The consumer groups have appealed the sealing and pseudonymity rulings to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Fourth Circuit. The public has a First Amendment right to open judicial
proceedings so that the courts, no less than other branches of
government, are subject to public scrutiny. That interest is especially acute in this case, the first-ever legal challenge to a report in the CPSC database.