A federal judge presiding over an antitrust lawsuit between two major Idaho health care providers has declared that trial testimony and documents can remain hidden from public view, providing attorneys make a compelling case for secrecy.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Oct. 8 after a coalition of Idaho news organizations challenged a broad protective order approved by the judge for documents and testimony leading up to the trial.
The lawsuit, now in its third week, focuses on allegations brought by the Idaho Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission and Saint Alphonsus Health System against St. Luke’s Health System. The case emerged in the wake of St. Luke’s bid to buy Nampa-based Saltzer Medical Group.
The week before the trial began, Winmill gave attorneys in the case latitude to designate documents and witness statements for “attorneys’ eyes only,” in effect sealing them off to the public and media covering the case. Winmill acknowledged the public’s right to know in an open trial, but balanced that with giving the hospitals the ability to protect trade secrets. As a result, more than half of the first two weeks of the trial took place behind closed doors.
The news organizations disagreed and filed a motion to intervene, arguing everything presented in the trial should be accessible to the public. The coalition includes The Idaho Statesman, The Associated Press, the (Twin Falls) Times-News, the Lewiston Tribune, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, the Idaho Press-Tribune and the Idaho Press Club.
Winmill didn’t entirely agree with arguments offered Oct. 8 by media attorney Charles Brown, of Lewiston.
“This is a (trial) of great interest to the public,” Winmill said. “The problem in this case is also very unique.
“We can’t, I think, (protect trade secrets) with a broad axe. We can’t do it with a scalpel.”
However, Winmill ordered lawyers for the hospitals, FTC and attorney general to file affidavits over the next week explaining why each sealed document and witness statement merits being sealed.
Winmill also said he will review the documents and testimony to make sure businesses are not misusing their “trade secret” status.
He also offered Brown the ability to review the documents as long as he does not disclose their contents to the news organizations. But Brown said the judge has the responsibility to be the “gatekeeper” of the public’s right to know.
St. Luke’s is accused by two competitors – Saint Alphonsus Health System and Treasure Valley Hospital – along with the state and federal government, of breaking antitrust laws in its buyout of the Saltzer group. The trial is expected to end in mid-October, with a ruling sometime after Nov. 7.