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State committee rejects bill to seal divorce records

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State committee rejects bill to seal divorce records

  • The California Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-2 to reject a bill that would have allowed people to seal their divorce and annulment court records in the name of protecting private information.

Feb. 3, 2004 — A Senate bill in California that would have allowed people to seal their annulment or divorce court records if the files contained private information — such as credit card or social security numbers — was defeated in committee last month.

Senate Bill 239, introduced by Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), sought to keep the records sealed for a 10-year period that could later be extended by the courts. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the bill by four to two on Jan. 13.

At the hearing, Morrow told committee members that “while family law requires disclosure of private information to the court, it is not necessary that the information be shared with the public.”

The California Newspaper Publishers Association voiced concerns over the measure in a Jan. 6 letter to Morrow. The association said the bill would excessively seal family court records, when only a small fraction of information might merit protection in order to avoid identity theft.

The association further argued that sealing an entire file would create an “anomalous situation in which the public could attend a court hearing, but be denied access to the official record of what occurred at the hearing.”

The letter cited the passage of SB 660, authored by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo). That bill, approved by the Senate and General Assembly in July, amended the California Family Code by requiring the Social Security numbers of any petitioner, respondent and child to be kept in a confidential portion of the court file. Thomas W. Newton, general counsel to the CNPA, said Speier’s bill was “a reasonable approach to allow someone to protect their social security records.”

Family court records are currently presumptively open, and may only be sealed by court order under certain conditions — if a party or minor is at risk of physical or mental harm, for example.

According to the CNPA’s Jan. 22 Legislative Bulletin, Morrow’s staff said the senator intends to introduce a less encompassing bill to protect sensitive records, such as a party’s credit card information.

(Senate Bill 239) AB

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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