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House bill gives public the chance to challenge court closures

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         NORTH CAROLINA         Secret Courts         Aug 17, 2001    

House bill gives public the chance to challenge court closures

  • Legislation creates a limited right for individuals to intervene in a case to exercise a constitutional right of access.

The North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill on Aug. 8 that gives the public the right to request a hearing to oppose the closing of a courtroom or sealing of court documents.

The bill provides specific steps the public, and by extension the press, must take to gain a limited right of intervention. First, a member of the public must pay a $20 filing fee to the court. Then a judge would be required to hold a hearing and listen to the reasons why the courtroom should not exclude the public. Finally, if the court determines that the applicant is entitled to access to the judicial proceeding or judicial record, it shall order intervention for the limited purpose of gaining access.

The bill does not amend the rules of civil procedure to make the requesting individual a party to the lawsuit. The individual has a hybrid status as an intervenor for the limited purpose of addressing the claim for access, said Rep. Jennifer Weiss, the sponsor of the bill.

The judge retains the right to set the scope of access in each case. Also, the judge has the discretion to close the courtroom if, after the hearing, a compelling need for confidentiality outweighs the public’s right of access to the proceeding.

The bill explicitly does not apply to juvenile proceedings or records.

The bill will now be considered by the Senate, where Weiss anticipated some debate as one member may attempt to attach a contradictory amendment. If passed, the bill could take effect on Oct. 1.

The state press association actively participated in lobbying for the bill, Weiss said.

(H.B. No.1284) AG

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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