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Federal study finds lack of standards on sealed cases

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  1. Court Access
The McClatchy "Suits & Sentences" blog reports today on findings of a federal study on court secrecy. A report prepared…

The McClatchy "Suits & Sentences" blog reports today on findings of a federal study on court secrecy. A report prepared for the Federal Judicial Center found 576 sealed civil cases and 1,077 sealed criminal cases in 2006.

The study demonstrates the long-known lack of standards judges often use in deciding when to seal cases, despite requirements that restrictions be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling interest. One judge, defending the sealing of a case involving a "high profile" defendant, said that "it seemed a good idea at the time."

The study found that there is "seldom" a public record of why a sealing was justified, and notes that in cases sealed from the start, "there will almost never be an opportunity for public challenge, because there will be no public record of the case."

A third of the sealed civil cases were false claim actions — whistleblower suits where the law allows sealing to provide the government with time to decide whether to intervene. A quarter of the criminal cases involved criminal informants.

The study also found that some courts intentionally leave sealed cases out of the electronic case management and filing system, meaning the public would never know a case was filed. It also notes that it did not count cases with "highly redacted docket sheets" and every document sealed as a sealed case.