Federal judges who decide whether or not to seal a court case can turn to a Federal Judicial Center pocket guide, which includes a brief history of case law on secret courts and a checklist of First and Sixth Amendment considerations.
The guide is aimed at federal judges, and “focuses on the occasional need to seal court records and proceedings," the Federal Judicial Center said Thursday in a press release.
The Center, an education agency for the federal judicial system established by Congress in 1967, noted in the guide that "[e]ssential to the rule of law is the public performance of the judicial function. On occasion, however, there are good reasons for courts to keep parts of some proceedings confidential."
The 22-page document covers a range of topics, including the public’s right of access to courts and proceedings that are guaranteed secrecy, such as grand jury proceedings. It also discusses the importance of judicial discretion when weighing secrecy against public access.
“The court has discretion to weigh the need for secrecy against the public’s right of access," the guide said. "Court records should be sealed to keep confidential only what must be kept secret, temporarily or permanently as the situation requires."
Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the guide generally reflects the law surrounding sealed courts.
“On balance, it is a good guide,” said Dalglish. But, she noted that she was disappointed by some sections. "The guide does not provide a strong stance on search warrants and plea agreements, but that could stem from the lack of a definitive ruling by the Supreme Court on those issues.”
Nonetheless, the guide is a helpful resource, Dalglish said. "It has a few problem areas, but overall, it provides necessary insight into the law."