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.