Nevada lawmakers reviewed a bill Friday that sets a stricter standard for sealing court records, a response to recent newspaper articles that showed judges in Clark County sealed records of more than 100 court cases, some of them involving high-profile litigants.
Attorney Richard Myers of the Nevada Justice Association argued for AB519, saying judges often seal information that could warn the public about dangers.
"Those who advance those sorts of public hazards have a vested interest in concealing them from the public. Those of us who represent the individuals who are wrongly injured or killed at such establishments or under such conditions have a strong sense of public duty to expose them, but very often our efforts are thwarted," Myers said.
The bill requires that a case cannot be sealed unless six conditions are met, including a condition that making the information public would create a serious and imminent danger to the public interest. The case cannot be sealed if it would conceal a public hazard. A public hearing also must be held before all concerned parties.
Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno, took issue with the high standard, and said no cases would be sealed as a result.
"Every single time you want a private settlement between two parties in a civil suit, it has to have serious and eminent danger for judges to be able to use their discretion? I just think that's a bit extreme," Cobb said. He suggested an amendment that any one of the conditions could be met to be able to seal a case.
Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said that counters the intent of the bill.
"I don't see that meeting each of these would be that hard. I think it's important for the court to make a finding that all of these have been met. The idea here is we don't want to seal the case," Segerblom said.
Barry Smith of the Nevada Press Association supported the bill and said openness in government is a consistent theme this legislative session.
"Whole documents, entire meetings, and in this instance entire court cases, are being withheld from the public in Nevada on the basis that some portion of them should be confidential," he wrote in a letter to the committee. He told lawmakers "The default should be 'open."'
The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a series of articles in February revealing that 115 cases had been sealed in Clark County district courts since 2000.
Only the names of those involved in the cases were available to the public, but a review of those names found judges had sealed cases involving high-profile litigants, including judge colleagues and relatives, high-powered lawyers, school districts, pharmaceutical companies, police departments, power companies and a Catholic priest. The names of the judges who sealed the records also are not public.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, has said the Legislature doesn't have the authority to enact laws that tell judges how to conduct themselves when sealing civil court records from public view.