Reporting a trial around closed doors and sealed files

By Audrey Dutton

Covering the big St. Luke’s antitrust trial in U.S. District Court in Boise involved hours spent waiting outside a closed courtroom, extensively redacted documents, and cryptic references in court to information not made public.

Now the Statesman, Idaho Press Club and several other Idaho news organizations are waiting to hear from a federal appeals court on their plea for openness, after U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill left it up to lawyers and business executives to decide what should be public in the case.

Winmill has explained his decision. He wanted to protect competitively sensitive information that could be divulged during the trial.

At first, that decision seemed totally logical to me. The point of the trial was to find whether a business did something to harm competition — so I could see why a judge would be cautious about spilling trade secrets in the process. Plus, Winmill ordered 24-hour turnaround on transcripts from closed-door sessions, so the public could read what happened.

But after spending hours camped out in the hallway outside Winmill’s closed courtroom, after waiting up to six business days for those transcripts — only to get them with entire pages redacted — my personal opinion changed.

It had become challenging to follow even the public portions of the trial. So many questions were asked and answered out of earshot, and so many charts and documents were displayed out of sight. (A slip by a lawyer revealed a “trade secret” email that was alarming in its blandness.)

Meanwhile, there is a growing sea of health-care data — from doctor salaries to hospital revenues, from medical “rack rates” to actual insurance payments — that is publicly available. It isn’t always easy to find, but it’s out there. That’s because of a shift toward health-care transparency at the national level.

Winmill ruled in January that St. Luke’s did break antitrust law. Before issuing the full ruling, he allowed a trade-secret request from lawyers, who mostly wanted to block information in his ruling about costs to consumers. Winmill denied the request, saying much of what he cited wasn’t truly secret — and, besides, he wanted the public to fully grasp how he arrived at his conclusions.

Unfortunately, the source material for all that information Winmill cited? It’s still under wraps.

Audrey Dutton is a business reporter for the Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise, and is a board member of the Idaho Press Club’s Southwest Chapter.