Tips for covering sealed cases

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From the Spring 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

Learn what the law is. "Start by knowing what the law is in your state regarding the sealing of cases," A.D. Hopkins, special projects editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, advised. Hopkins said his newspaper looked at civil cases because Nevada law allows family court cases to be sealed at the request of either side. "We didn't make any issue of that," he said.

Ask clerks for help. Sometimes, court clerks may have already compiled information about sealed cases or may be willing to run searches to make such a list, as the Clark County, Nev., clerk did for the Review-Journal. And Washington's Administrative Office of the Courts agreed to run several searches for The Seattle Times, even though the law did not require them to do so.

Study the courts' record-keeping. Times reporter Justin Mayo worked extensively with staffers at the state court administrative office figuring out how they coded records and dockets. That was essential to identifying all the sealed cases.

Don't rely only on the court file. Both the Review-Journal and the Times used public resources and databases to find out information on cases where they typically had little more than the litigants' names. Times reporter Ken Armstrong said public records requests were essential for fleshing out stories. "I think it's a mistake to assume once you get a file open, it's going to have everything you need to tell a story," he said. "I think it's better to view it as a starting point and not an end point." -- RG