Advocate appeals secret Kan. case to Supreme Court

AP News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2010 11:58 AM
Advocate appeals secret Kan. case to Supreme Court

An advocate for chronic pain patients who is under investigation for obstruction of justice has challenged grand jury subpoenas in a rare case that climbed secretly through the judicial system to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Siobhan Reynolds, president of the Pain Relief Network, has asked the nation's highest court to quash subpoenas issued to her and her nonprofit group and make public the proceedings against her. The usually public court docket _ which includes court documents, hearing dates and other case information _ has been sealed in her case in a federal district court in Kansas and 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Even at the U.S. Supreme Court, there was scant public record showing her case existed until last week, when the court agreed to make a redacted version of her appeal available while it decides whether to take the case.

Reynolds' attorney, Robert Corn-Revere of Washington, D.C., said the case is unusual because most secret proceedings involve some kind of national security and this one does not. Federal prosecutors have declined to talk about their reasons for pursuing the case in secret.

Reynolds, 49, also stands out in wanting her case made public when most people under investigation want to keep it quiet. But Lucy Dalglish, executive director for The Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Reynolds' request isn't surprising.

"The more political the issue, the more likely you are to say, 'Hey, the feds are investigating me,'" Dalglish said.

Reynolds, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., attracted the government's attention by supporting Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, who were convicted earlier this year of a moneymaking conspiracy linked to 68 overdose deaths. Schneider was sentenced last week to 30 years in prison, and his wife received a 33-year sentence tied to their operation of a Kansas clinic prosecutors described as a "pill mill."

Last year, Reynolds, who believes a federal crackdown on prescription painkillers has left chronic pain patients needlessly suffering, paid for a highway billboard sign proclaiming: "Dr. Schneider never killed anyone."

Weeks after it went up, Reynolds said she got a subpoena from a federal grand jury seeking, among other things, documents related to her ad. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the subpoena, which also asks for Reynolds' communications with numerous lawyers, patients, the Schneiders and their relatives along with financial and telephone records and an advocacy video she made.

Reynolds' initial refusal to turn over the materials cost her and her nonprofit group $39,400 in fines before the money ran out. Faced with imminent jailing, she gave prosecutors the documents weeks before the Schneiders' summer trial began.

The activist has acknowledged she is a target of a grand jury investigation and wants her case made public.

"They beat me up in the dark and then they sealed their rulings from public scrutiny," Reynolds told the AP. "This is not the America I thought I was living in."

Acting Solicitor General Neal Kumar Katyal has opposed unsealing the case or even making her full petition to the Supreme Court available. The document contains confidential grand jury material, he said in a written response to the court.

Reynolds' case has alarmed First Amendment supporters who say the secrecy shrouding it is "highly unusual, and patently wrong" _ reminiscent of the secrecy surrounding the roundup and detention of hundreds of foreigners after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Reporters' Committee attempted to intercede in the case but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court last week.

"We are just offended at the notion that something can make it to the U.S. Supreme Court and it is secret," Dalglish said.

A 2006 investigation by the AP found more than 5,000 people were prosecuted secretly in federal courts between 2003 and 2005, most involving drug-related conspiracies. But Dalglish, whose group did a similar study of federal cases in Washington, said few secret ones reached the Supreme Court.

While grand jury proceedings are secret, the subpoena challenge by former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, for example, was conducted in open court without getting into the underlying grand jury investigation.

"I think it is rare you see a case that entire dockets through the appellate process are subject to this kind of secrecy," said Corn-Revere, Reynolds' attorney. "And that, of course, is one of the issues we are asking the court to address."

Reynolds' case also raises the question before the Supreme Court of whether grand juries can be used to silence dissent, he said. Her petition says people should be able to criticize the government without fear and asks the court to set standards for lower courts allowing grand juries to subpoena materials protected by the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to review the case sometime in December, Corn-Revere said.