California trial judges need reason to seal records

By David Kravets Associated Press Writer
Saturday October 28, 2000

Open-records advocates praise Judicial Council’s decision;  

opponents claim ruling hurts defendants’ privacy 


SAN FRANCISCO – California’s trial judges no longer can seal court records automatically under a new rule adopted Friday. 

The rule, an outgrowth of a California Supreme Court decision last year, requires judges to state on the record why they are sealing a record. The reasons must be in accordance with guidelines spelled out by the high court. 

Open-records advocates hailed the rule, approved 18-1 by the Judicial Council — the administrative arm of California’s court system. 

The only negative vote came from John Collins, a Pasadena lawyer appointed by the State Bar to sit on the council. He said the Judicial Council has no place to adopt such a controversial rule, adding that is the state legislature’s job. 

“There is an awful lot of stuff that may get daylight that shouldn’t,” said Collins, whose vote does not reflect the position of the State Bar that represents all of California’s lawyers. 

Advocates said the rule would stop judges from the common practice of “casually” sealing records at the request of attorneys. 

“It’s not going to stop all sealings. But I think it will cut down on the number of casual sealings that occur without any good reason except that the parties in the case think it is OK,” said Terry Francke, counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition. 

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald Robie agreed with Francke. Robie, a Judicial Council member, said judges immediately seal records at the request or by so-called “stipulations” of lawyers, regardless of whether the documents should remain open. 

Now a judge must conduct a hearing and state the reasons for sealing, which might make judges leery of sealing a record, Robie said. 

“It eliminates stipulations,” he said. “That happens frequently.” 

When a judge seals a record, the judge must find an “overriding” interest. That is the standard the California Supreme Court spelled out last year when the high court ruled that a lower court erred when it excluded the public and media from portions of a civil trial in which the jury was not present. 

The high court said there was a First Amendment right to access courts and the justices requested the Judicial Council propose how and when court records could be sealed. 

Even so, the definition of an overriding interest is at the judge’s discretion. Such interests include sealing trade secret information in a lawsuit, the addresses and phone numbers of witnesses and, in some cases, psychiatric and medical reports. 

However, even under the new rules, settlement agreements of lawsuits remain confidential as well as a host of juvenile court records and documents of family mediation disputes. 

Some lawmakers have said they may introduce legislation next year requiring that lawsuits settled out of court become public records.