Completely sealed case in North Carolina violates public’s First Amendment right to access court records

Jose Ochoa | February 21, 2018
The Reporters Committee and a coalition of nine media organizations are asking a North Carolina appeals court to overturn an unprecedented lower court ruling that allowed nearly all court records in a civil case to be filed completely under seal. The docket, names of both parties and their lawyers, and sealing orders are all secret in the case, Doe v. Doe, essentially concealing its very existence.
The Fayetteville Observer brought a lawsuit to unseal the records after it discovered the case involved a prominent local businessman who had reached settlements with multiple minors over allegations of sexual abuse.
In a brief filed in support of the Observer, the media coalition argues that the wholesale sealing of cases turns the courts “into secret chambers where issues of significant public interest and concern are resolved in darkness.”
Under both the North Carolina constitution and the First Amendment, the public has a presumptive right to access civil court records and proceedings. This right means that courts cannot selectively seal entire cases at the behest of prominent individuals seeking to conceal their involvement in litigation. Accountability to the public is an essential part of the justice system, and the ability to access information that sheds light on how the system handles cases is essential to building confidence in the courts. 
The trial court’s order denying the Observer’s motion to unseal — the only public filing in the case — claims the court sealed the documents to protect the identities of the minors. Citing decisions from other courts in North Carolina, as well as those in Connecticut, Illinois, and Wyoming, the coalition brief argues that instead of completely sealing court records to protect privacy interests, the court has a responsibility to redact minors’ identifying information from the records and release the remaining information.
Given the overbroad sealing in this case, the public would have had no way of knowing about the allegations against the businessman, who had also served as the former chairman of the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, without the Observer’s discovery that he was a party to the lawsuit.
The case is one of many that the Reporters Committee is involved in to increase public access to court records. Just last week, the Reporters Committee filed a motion to unseal sentencing memoranda in a Connecticut case where a man convicted of sex trafficking a minor and possessing heroin with intent to distribute was given a shorter sentence than required by law.
The full amicus brief in support of the Observer, written by attorneys from Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC, is available here.