“[T]he courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.”Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978) (footnote omitted). The Supreme Court has not addressed the constitutional presumption in civil cases, though a lower court noted that “[t]he presumption that the public has a right to see and copy judicial records attaches to those documents which properly come before the court in the course of an adjudicatory proceeding and which are relevant to the adjudication.” F.T.C. v. Standard Financial Management Corp., 830 F.2d 404, 412-13 (1st Cir. 1987). And the Third Circuit held “that ‘there is a strong presumption that material introduced into evidence at trial should be made’ available for public access.” Littlejohn v. Bic Corp., 851 F.2d 673, 678 (3rd Cir. 1988) (citations omitted).
Admitted and proffered exhibits, including both documents and physical items, are part of the public record of a case, and while in the custody of the clerk’s office, are available for inspection and copying unless they are otherwise confidential. Administrative Order JB-05-20 (A. 5-09) “Public Information and Confidentiality” § III(A)(6). Exhibits submitted to the clerk, but never proffered or admitted, will be made available to the submitting party, but are subject to inspection or copying while in the custody of the clerk’s office. Id. However, public copying or inspection may be limited by the terms of a protective order or by a judicial order or administrative order governing the handling of contraband or dangerous materials. Id.
In general, exhibits admitted into evidence in civil cases are returned to counsel of record after final judgment has been entered and the appeal period has lapsed.
In a case challenging a court order denying confidentiality to certain exhibits admitted in evidence at trial containing trade secrets, the Supreme Judicial Court distinguished the comparatively lenient standard for entry of a protective order governing discovery materials from the more rigorous standard that must be met before trial exhibits will be sealed. Bailey v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 651 A.2d 840, 843-44 (Me.1994). The Court quoted with approval the First Circuit’s opinion inPoliquin v. Garden Way, 989 F.2d 527, 533 (1st Cir. 1993):
Material of many different kinds may enter the trial record in various ways and be considered by the judge or jury for various purposes . . . . It is neither wise nor needful for this court to fashion a rulebook to govern the range of possibilities. One generalization, however, is safe: the ordinary showing of good cause which is adequate to protect discovery material from disclosure cannot alone justify protecting such material after it has been introduced at trial. This dividing line may in some measure be an arbitrary one, but it accords with the long-settled practice in this country separating the presumptively private phase of litigation from the presumptively public.
Id. at 843-844. In Poliquin “[t]he court concluded that non-disclosure of judicial records could be justified only by the most compelling reasons.” Id. at 844.
The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of a request to seal trial exhibits despite an affidavit from the defendant that disclosure of the evidence sought to be protected would “result in a direct loss of revenue to Emerson Electric Co. and would spare our competitors the considerable burden of financing their own research and development.” Id. The Court explained, “On this record we cannot say the trial court abused its discretion by determining that the defendants had failed to satisfy the court that they had established good cause or that justice required the continued protection of the exhibits admitted in evidence as distinguished from the materials produced in the course of the discovery process.” Id.