May 15, 2007

Florida Supreme Court Issues Emergency Rules Prohibiting

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Judith M. Mercier

In response to media reports about hidden cases and secret dockets, Florida’s highest state court has reaffirmed its commitment to safeguarding the public’s constitutional right of access to court records by adopting new interim rules that make it harder to seal files in civil cases. The court also signaled that it may soon do the same with criminal cases.

The April 5, 2007, amendments to Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.420 – Sealing of Court Records and Dockets – set forth the procedures for anyone who wants to ask a state court to seal as confidential circuit and county court records in noncriminal cases, and for those who want to unseal court records that have been made confidential. The new procedures mandate that:

1. A request to make court records in noncriminal cases confidential must be made by written motion.

2. A public hearing must be held on any contested sealing motion and may be held on certain uncontested sealing motions.

3. A sealing order issued by a court must state with specificity the grounds for sealing and the findings of the court that justify sealing.

4. All sealing orders must be published to the public.

5. A nonparty may file a motion to vacate a sealing order. Because the court must state with specificity its grounds for closure and make specific findings supporting its ruling, the movant seeking to vacate such an order bears the burden of showing that the order is “unsound.”

6. A public hearing must be held on any contested motion to vacate a sealing order and may be held on certain uncontested motions to vacate.

7. A court may impose sanctions on any party who files a sealing motion without a good-faith basis and without a sound factual and legal basis.

8. The case number, docket number, or other identifying number of a case cannot be made confidential and thus the removal from public view of all information acknowledging the existence of a case is expressly not allowed.

The court took up the matter following media reports that trial judges in South Florida counties had maintained “supersealed” cases, the term given to hidden cases and secret dockets. The court thereafter invited out-of-cycle proposed rule amendments on an expedited basis and directed the chief judges of the circuit courts to take immediate corrective action.

In the opinion adopting the amendment, the Supreme Court of Florida acknowledged that the procedures adopted “are not the Court’s final statement in this area” and referred the issue of criminal and appellate court records to the appropriate committees for further review.

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