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Wyoming

Open Courts Compendium

Author

Bruce T. Moats
Law Office of Bruce T. Moats
2515 Pioneer Avenue
Cheyenne, Wyoming 82001
Phone: (307) 778-8844
Fax: (307) 638-1227
bmoats@hackerlaw.net

Last updated Feb. 2018

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I. Introduction: Access rights in the jurisdiction

The Wyoming Supreme Court has recognized a constitutional right of access to court proceedings and records pursuant to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Circuit Court of the Eighth Judicial Dist. v. Lee Newspapers, 2014 WY 101.

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A. The roots of access rights

B. Overcoming a presumption of openness

The presumption of openness may only be overcome by a demonstration that there is a compelling interest which makes closure essential to preserve higher values, and that any closure is narrowly tailored to serve that compelling interest.

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C. Procedural prerequisites to closure

When a court determines that a compelling interest exists, the court must articulate findings, on the record, specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.  A hearing on a closure may be closed if information sought to be kept confidential must be discussed.

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II. Procedure for asserting right of access to proceedings and records

One must file a motion to intervene for the limited purpose of contesting a court closure.

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A. Media standing to challenge closure

The Wyoming Supreme Court has recognized the standing of the media, as representative of the public to challenge closure motions.

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B. Procedure for requesting access in criminal cases

Wyoming courts have routinely allowed standing to intervene for the limited purpose of challenging the closure of proceedings and records. A formal pleading is required, and most courts will not acknowledge an informal letter.

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C. Procedure for requesting access in civil matters

Wyoming has little history in regard to intervention in civil cases. One would expect that the procedure would be similar to that of a criminal proceeding.

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D. Obtaining review of initial court decisions

Access decisions are reviewed via appeal. A writ of mandamus might be appropriate in a case where there is no discretion to be exercised by the lower court.  Otherwise, a closure order is reviewed for abuse of discretion by the lower court. See Feeney v. District Court, 614 P.2d 710 (Wyo. 1980); Williams v. Stafford, 589 P.2d 322 (Wyo. 1979). There is no procedure for an expedited review, and how one might attempt to overturn a closure order prior to the closed proceeding is unclear. The Wyoming Supreme Court has said: “This does not mean that the public is without some other remedy to enforce its interest in open pretrial hearings or test the issue of abuse of discretion when a judicial officer closes a hearing by an erroneous exercise of his Williams discretion. We merely hold in this opinion that the extraordinary writ of mandamus may not be utilized to challenge the judicial officer’s exercise of discretion if, in fact, he had discretion." State ex. rel. Feeney v. Distilled. Court of Seventh Judicial Dist., 607 P.2d 1259, 1263 (Wyo. 1980).

The court did not say what the “some other remedy” might be. It is important to note that the Feeney decision came down before the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of the constitutional right of access to pretrial proceedings in the Press-Enterprise cases, which are summarized in the Access to Criminal Proceedings section below.

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III. Access to criminal proceedings

The public has a constitutional right of access.

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A. In general

B. Pretrial proceedings

The Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that public participation during preliminary hearings provides a positive and significant role in the functioning of preliminary hearings. Circuit Court of the Eighth Judicial Dist. v. Lee Newspapers, 2014 WY 101, ¶ 19. Pretrial proceedings should only be closed in extraordinary circumstances. Williams v. Stafford, 589 P.2d 322 (Wyo. 1979). If closure is ordered, the court must make a particularized finding on the record justifying closure. Closure to protect fair trial rights may only be effected when there are no reasonable alternatives. Id.

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C. Criminal trials

The public has a right to attend criminal trials.

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D. Post-trial proceedings

Post-trial proceedings are generally open in Wyoming under the standards set forth in Williams v. Stafford. Presentence investigations and reports are confidential.

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E. Appellate proceedings

The public may attend arguments before the Wyoming Supreme Court, the state’s only appellate court.

 

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IV. Access to criminal court records

A. In general

The public has a constitutional right of access to court records as well as proceedings.

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B. Arrest records

Individual arrests records and mug shots are public records in Wyoming. However, “rap sheets” or criminal histories maintained by law enforcement for the specific purpose of identifying potential suspects are confidential pursuant to the Criminal History Records Act. W.S. §7-19-101 et. seq.

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C. Dockets

Wyoming has recognized a constitutional right of access to dockets.

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All information filed with the court for the purpose of obtaining a search warrant, including affidavits, are confidential until such time as the warrant is executed. Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 41(i).

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E. Discovery materials

Deposition transcripts that are not filed with the Court are generally found not to be public.

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F. Pretrial motions and records

Such motions and records are available to the public unless there is a compelling reason to close such records under the constitutional right of access.

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G. Trial records

Trial records are presumptively open in Wyoming, unless a specific statute requires sealing of the record. The Wyoming Supreme Court had recently adopted rules regarding access to court records and redaction of court records, effective January 1, 2010. After receiving numerous questions and concerns regarding the new rules, the Court rescinded the rules pending further review. The rescinded rules contained a list of records made confidential by statute. The redaction rules required that financial information, birth dates, and addresses be redacted from all court records, except for arrest warrants and charging documents, including supporting affidavits.

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H. Post-trial records

Post-trial records, except for presentence reports, are open to the public under the constitutional right of access.

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I. Appellate records

Appellate records are open the public under the constitutional right of access.

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J. Other criminal court records issues

Wyoming has no specific case law regarding the copying of audiovisual records.

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V. Access to civil proceedings

A. In general

Wyoming has no direct case law as to access to civil proceedings, but the court has talked about “judicial documents” in recognizing the right of access to records of criminal courts. Circuit Court of Eighth Judicial Dist. v. Lee Newspapers, 2014 WY 101, 332 P.3d 523 (Wyo. 2014).

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B. Pre-trial proceedings

C. Trials

Wyoming has no case law specific to civil trials, but they are generally open to the public.

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D. Post-trial proceedings

E. Appellate proceedings

The public is allowed to attend oral arguments of the Supreme Court, the only appellate court, unless the court orders otherwise.

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VI. Access to civil records

The Wyoming Supreme Court has adopted Rules Governing Access to Court Records, which applies to both civil and criminal cases.

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A. In general

Court records are presumed to be open to public access during regular business hours unless otherwise provided by the rules.  The rules list those records deemed confidential by statute or court order.  However, these records may be open if used in open court.

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B. Dockets

Dockets are included in the presumption that records are open to the public.

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C. Discovery materials

D. Pre-trial motions and records

Pretrial motions and records are presumed to be open as are other civil court records.

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E. Trial records

Exhibits admitted for introduction at trial are open unless sealed by a specific court order.

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F. Settlement records

There is no case law in Wyoming regarding settlement records. It is presumed that settlements with public entities are open for public inspection as the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that any document respecting the expenditure of public funds must be “expressly textual.” Houghton v. Franscell, 870 P.2d 1050 (Wyo. 1994). There is no express exemption in the Public Records Act for settlement agreements.

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G. Post-trial records

Post-trial records are presumed open to the public unless subject to closure in accordance with the court rules.

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H. Appellate records

Appellate records are presumed open to the public unless subject to closure in accordance with the court rules.

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I. Other civil court records issues

VII. Jury and grand jury access

A. Access to voir dire

Voir dire is generally open unless a potential juror requests to meet privately with the court and counsel.

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B. Juror identities, questionnaires and other records

Juror questionnaires are confidential by court rule.

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C. Grand jury proceedings and records

Grand jury records are confidential in Wyoming.

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D. Interviewing jurors

Jurors may be interviewed after the conclusion of the trial in Wyoming, but if a juror objects, then the interviewer must not persist in the interview.

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VIII. Proceedings involving minors

A. Delinquency

Juvenile courts and records are closed in Wyoming. However, if a minor is charged in adult court, then the court proceedings and records are open.

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B. Dependency

C. Other proceedings involving minors

Adoption, administrative proceedings regarding child neglect, and paternity cases are confidential by law in Wyoming. Financial affidavits filed in child support cases are also confidential.

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D. Prohibitions on photographing or identifying juveniles

Minor names, except those where the minor is a party, are to be redacted from court records. Wyoming Court Rules Governing Redactions from Court Records.

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E. Minor testimony in non-juvenile courts

Public access is allowed unless the court orders otherwise.

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IX. Special proceedings

A. Tribal Courts in the jurisdiction

B. Probate

C. Competency and commitment proceedings

D. Attorney and judicial discipline

These cases are open to the public once they reach Supreme Court for decision.

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E. Immigration proceedings

F. Other proceedings

X. Restrictions on participants in litigation

A. Media standing to challenge third-party gag orders

The media is allowed to challenge third-party gag orders as representatives of the public.

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B. Gag orders on the press

Gag orders are not permitted unless the media is a party and the order limits the ability to publish information it learned in discovery.

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C. Gag orders on participants

Wyoming courts have issued gag orders on participants when good cause is shown.

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D. Interviewing judges

There is no prohibition on interviews of judges, but rarely are they granted.

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XI. Other issues

A. Interests often cited in opposing a presumption of access

B. Cameras and other technology in the courtroom

Rule 53 of Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure allows cameras in the courtroom at the discretion of the presiding judge. The rule applies to civil cases pursuant to Rule 804 of the Uniform Rules For District Courts. Application must be made at least 24 hours prior to the proceeding.

In a trial of major importance, the court may require pooling. Cameras must be set up prior to the beginning of the proceedings. No close-ups of jurors are permitted. Bench conferences are off-limits. The court may “for cause” prohibit videotaping or photographing of a participant. Orders limiting photography of crime victims, confidential informants, undercover agents and in suppression hearings are presumptively valid.

Rule 53 mentioned above covers both still photography, audiotaping and videotaping of court proceedings.

Wyoming has no specific rules regarding webcasting.

Wyoming has no specific rules regarding liveblogging or twittering.

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C. Tips for covering courts in the jurisdiction

Wyoming state courts include circuit courts, district courts and the Wyoming Supreme Court. There are also municipal courts. The circuit courts have jurisdiction in civil matters with alleged damages up to $50,000. The circuit courts also conduct criminal arraignments and preliminary hearings.

Transcripts may be obtained from the court’s official reporter. The Wyoming State Bar has the contact information for the court reporters for each court. The reporters may also be contacted via the specific court office.

Cell phones are not allowed in most Wyoming courtrooms. Neither is eating or drinking. Computers may be allowed if not disruptive to the proceedings.

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