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Senate panel rejects bill on sealing court records

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEVADA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   May 22, 2007

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEVADA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   May 22, 2007

Senate panel rejects bill on sealing court records

  • Legislators defeat a bill that would have established guidelines for closing cases, but a state Supreme Court committee is meeting to form recommendations.

May 22, 2007  ·   A bill that would have established guidelines for Nevada judges to seal cases failed in a state Senate committee last week, ending the chances for the legislation to pass this year.

But a new committee formed by the state Supreme Court to study the issue of sealing cases met for the first time Monday, and members are hopeful that the state’s high court will eventually adopt rules making it more difficult to hide cases from the public.

The original bill was introduced shortly after the Las Vegas Review-Journal published stories revealing that 115 civil cases were sealed in the Clark County court since 2000. Only the case numbers, the litigants’ names and key dates were released to the newspaper, but the Review-Journal revealed the cases involved people with ties to judges, pharmaceutical companies and local church officials.

The legislation introduced in March would have prohibited judges from sealing records unless the evidence showed that sealing was in the public interest, would not conceal a public hazard or would prevent imminent harm, and provided the only reasonable way to prevent any “prejudicial effect” from disseminating the information.

The amended bill that the Senate Judiciary Committee considered last week was significantly watered down from the version that passed the state Assembly by a 39-2 vote last month, said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

Instead of requiring judges to hold hearings before sealing cases and giving the public a chance to object, the new proposal would have required members of the public to file court papers and show that there was “good cause” to open sealed records.

Legislators also proposed that the rules would only take effect when they were not in conflict with other state laws or Nevada Supreme Court rules, Smith said. That would have meant that if the Supreme Court “doesn’t adopt rules, we would have had something in place that says this is what you do before you seal a record,” Smith said.

Still, Judiciary Committee members rejected the proposal on Thursday by a 4-3 vote.

If the Legislature had passed the bill, Smith said it would have increased pressure on the court system to make its own rules. But Smith, who is also a member of the Supreme Court’s sealing committee, said he was “optimistic” after the first meeting that the committee meetings would lead to changes.

“I’m encouraged that ultimately we’re going to get something very productive out of this commission,” Smith said.

The committee is charged with examining whether the courts should ever allow so-called “super-sealing” of cases, which removes all trace of them from the public record. The commission is also studying whether a litigant who wants to seal a case should have to prove why it should be sealed, and whether a hearing should be held before a judge can seal a case.

The panel is expected to draft recommendations over the next three to six months. The state Supreme Court would have final say over which rules are adopted.

At the first meeting, the commission heard comments from an attorney who said she had been involved in a case that was super-sealed since 1998 in the local court but was a matter of public record in the federal courts.

Smith said the revelations about super-sealed cases shocked members of the committee. While he said there may be some “sticking points” in developing recommendations, he said it “seemed to be the consensus that . . . nobody could think of a reason to super-seal a case.”

(A.B. 519)RG

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