Why Are Court Cases Sealed
“A courtroom. is a public place where people in general – and media representatives – have the right to be present, and where their presence historically enhances the integrity and quality of what is happening,” said Chief Justice Warren Burger. Ultimately, these hortation efforts failed to regulate sealing practices. Procedures are still not uniform from one district to another. Even more troubling, this laxity means that records are sometimes sealed without public notice – or without apparent judicial review as to whether or for how long this is warranted. In short, the lack of clear procedural rules means that litigants – and sometimes courts – easily and too often overlook the adequacy of sealing First Amendment court records and common law access rights. While the common law right of access certainly should not be invoked, the First Amendment right of access is even more powerful — and it provides more ammunition to fight court sealing. (More on why this is important, below.) The main difference between expunging a person`s criminal record and sealing is that a sealed record still “exists” in the legal and physical sense, while deletion results in the deletion of all records that an arrest or criminal complaint has already taken place. This is usually a standard procedure of sealing records of juvenile criminal proceedings once the person reaches the age of 18, as well as other criminal cases involving a minor, but these records are always accessible with a court order. First, unwarranted secrecy in the courts undermines public confidence in the civil justice system and allows private litigants to hijack the justice system for their own purposes. The courts are created by the people, for the people.
Secrecy perverts the system and allows a public forum to become a tool to keep wrongdoing secret. (12) In 2009, at least 19 cases before the US Supreme Court concerned sealed documents, compared with nine cases in 2005 and four cases in 1994. In 2004, the Committee of Reporters, along with a group of media organizations, also attempted to intervene before the Supreme Court in a habeas corpus case involving an Algerian married to an American woman who was detained by federal authorities after September 11, 2001. The entire case was locked and made known to the public only after an employee mistakenly entered part of the file on PACER, the federal court system`s online filing system. Court records relating to doctor/patient confidentiality will also be sealed. This serves to preserve the patient`s privacy. All communications from doctors, counselors, therapists, and even social workers are sealed to protect patient confidentiality. Nixon v.
1978 Warner Communications Inc., several associates of former President Richard Nixon, were tried for, among other things, conspiracy to obstruct justice in connection with the investigation into the 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. A group of broadcasters has asked the court for permission to copy, broadcast and publicly sell parts of Nixon`s famous secret Oval Office recordings. Second, in some cases where public health and safety are at stake, sealing court records can put lives at risk. To give just one example, using sealed court records and secret settlements, the Remington Arms Company was able to hide evidence that its most popular rifle can fire without anyone pulling the trigger. It wasn`t until public justice intervened in a case on behalf of one of Remington`s victims – the father of a young boy killed by one of the failed guns – that the court records on the dangerous guns were finally unsealed. (13) In the Perez case, the story fortunately ends because a public interest group intervened in the case and successfully challenged the sealing of the court records; As soon as the court was informed of the issue of secrecy, it was immediately addressed and resolved. But in the vast majority of cases, once documents are locked, no one is available to speak on behalf of the public interest of access, and the documents remain sealed forever. In one case, Sealed Petitioners v. The names of several defendants have not been disclosed in court records.
According to a 2009 petition, the defendants were charged in a multiple indictment with crimes related to the kidnapping and murder of U.S. and other nationals in several South American countries. The defendants agreed to enter into plea agreements. Normally, documents should not be sealed without court approval.  However, FRCP 5.2 requires sensitive text—such as social security number, tax identification number, date of birth, bank accounts, and children`s names—to be edited from documents submitted to court and accompanying evidence.  A person who submits a redacted submission may file an unredacted copy under seal, or the court may subsequently order that an additional observation be made under seal without redactions. The bidding party may also apply to the court for permission to file certain attachments entirely under lock and key. Then, when it is time to file these documents with a court – for example, as an appendix to a motion to dismiss summary judgment – the parties often simply file the documents under lock and key or make pro forma applications to the court for approval. Busy district judges then often approve the parties` request without further investigation, inadvertently ignoring the purported right of public access to court records. This disorderly state of affairs has had predictable consequences. Sealing decisions are opaque and sometimes clearly wrong.
Often, for example, judges simply approve a sealing request without giving any explanation. A frequently observed trend is that entire files are sealed simply because counsel for the plaintiff and defendant agreed to keep them secret, with no apparent review of whether the public`s right of access has been suspended.