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New rules provide guidance for sealing civil case files

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  1. Court Access
Jan. 4, 2008  ·   The Nevada Supreme Court adopted new rules effective Jan. 1 governing closure of civil files…

Jan. 4, 2008  ·   The Nevada Supreme Court adopted new rules effective Jan. 1 governing closure of civil files after studying recommendations and following a series of media reports uncovering secret case files and docketing systems in the state’s courts.

The Nevada Rules for Sealing and Redacting Court Records provide statewide guidance for all courts to follow before sealing documents in civil cases. The rules direct courts to follow specific procedures when either parties to the case or the court itself wishes to make portions of a case off limits to the public.

The new rules prevent sealing a case file in its entirety and will avoid the issue of a separate, secret docketing system.

Now before a court may redact or seal information, it must find that the “sealing or redaction is justified by identified compelling privacy or safety interests that outweigh the public interest in access to the court record.”

This new standard comes from a test set forth in Donrey of Nevada, Inc. v. Bradshaw, which media attorney Mark Hinueber said the state’s courts look to in records access cases. The rules, Hinueber said, are “a good first step.”

“It’s good that at least now judges have a standard to look to. There were no clear standards before,” he added, noting that rulings varied from courtroom to courtroom and regionally around the state.

Hinueber, the vice president and general counsel of Stephens Media LLC, also pointed to a series of articles published last winter in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which Stephens owns, that uncovered secret case files and entire secret docketing systems in Nevada courts. He said those reports uncovering more than 115 cases not available on the public docket shed light on the practice as well as the lack of uniformity among courts’ procedures in sealing records generally.

The rules also prohibit courts from sealing records that “have the purpose or effect of concealing a public hazard.” Hinueber said that was a provision media groups pushed for specifically, hoping to avoid incidents such as a 2007 case where a judge sealed records in a tire defect lawsuit. Under the new rules, Hinueber said he thinks those records would have remained open to the public.

Additionally, if court records are to be sealed, a court must preserve the original docket code, document title and number and date so as to ensure the public is aware of the presence of additional sealed records.

The state Supreme Court had formed a commission to study and develop procedures for sealing and redacting court records in civil cases, which held hearings and accepted comments on its proposed rules before submitting them to the Supreme Court, which adopted the rules Dec. 31, 2007.

Corinna Zarek

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