The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling relates to records in a since-settled defamation case after financier Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 pleaded guilty in Florida to state charges of soliciting and procuring a person under age 18 for prostitution.
He was sentenced to 13 months in jail and was required to reach financial settlements with dozens of his once-teenage victims. Epstein, now 66, also was required to register as a sex offender. A federal judge in Florida is currently deciding whether sealed records in Florida related to Epstein's case must be made public.
Attorney Alan M. Dershowitz, the Miami Herald Co. and an independent blogger, Michael Cernovich, sought the unsealing of records in the case. Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor who had worked on Epstein's legal defense, sought the unsealing of records to fight what he called "outrageous and impertinent allegations" made against him, the 2nd Circuit noted.
The 2nd Circuit said records in the defamation case contained descriptions of sexual abuse by Epstein along with new allegations of sexual abuse by "numerous prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known prime minister and other world leaders."
According to court documents in Florida, authorities say at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein's Palm Beach mansion for what turned into sexual encounters after female fixers looked for suitable girls locally and in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.
Epstein also has maintained a home in New York City, a ranch in New Mexico and a private Caribbean island. According to court documents, some girls were brought to those places as well. The appeals court said the judge presiding over the New York case sealed about one-fifth of all documents filed in the case, some without just cause or proper explanations for their sealing.
It ordered some records to be released as soon as lawyers have a chance to appeal to the entire 2nd Circuit, if they choose. Others, the three-judge panel decided, will have to be reviewed by a lower-court judge before they are released.
The appeals court also added an unusual warning to the public and the media "to exercise restraint" regarding potentially defamatory allegations. It said New York law provides immunity from defamation liability for anyone who makes oral or written statements in connection with a proceeding before a court.
Thus, it said, "court filings are, in some respects, particularly susceptible to fraud. For while the threat of defamation actions may deter malicious falsehoods in standard publications, this threat is non-existent with respect to certain court filings."