On April 7 a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard argument in United States v. Jane Doe (Jane Doe I). At issue in that case is whether U.S. District Judge John Gleeson acted within his authority when he expunged the conviction of a woman he had sentenced some 14 years earlier, based on his finding that her conviction had proved an insurmountable bar to the jobs in home health care for which she was qualified. Judge Gleeson directed that the government seal the records of Ms.Doe’s conviction, stating that he had sentenced her “to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.” The government appealed, arguing that a federal court has no authority to expunge or seal a conviction record, particularly the record of a valid conviction. Briefs in the case can be viewed here.
The panel did not appear persuaded by the government’s argument that the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Kokkonen v. Guardian Life, 511 U.S. 375 (1994)(refusing ancillary jurisdiction to enforce state law civil claims), meant that federal courts have no jurisdiction to expunge the record of a federal criminal case. The import of the government’s argument would be to overrule the Circuit’s leading expungement case from the 1970s, United States v. Schnitzer, 567 F.2d 536 (2d Cir. 1977), which held that federal courts have ancillary jurisdiction to grant expungement on equitable grounds in extraordinary circumstances. No judge on the panel expressed any support for overruling Schnitzer, and the government seemed reluctant to ask for it. At the same time, Schnitzer involved expungement of an arrest that the government did not pursue, not a valid conviction. That distinction seemed to have some appeal for one judge on the panel, who suggested that the holding in Schnitzer might not apply where conviction as opposed to arrest is at issue.