The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has made it clear that sealing court records should not be presumed and, in fact, could be difficult in light of the public's interest in understanding decisions in the judicial system.
Paul McAdoo, a Nashville attorney who specializes in media law and First Amendment issues, has reviewed a series of cases and opinions issued in 2016 and 2017 by the Sixth Circuit in a cover story in the Tennessee Bar Journal in May 2018.
Read or download his article here: The Right to Know: Sixth Circuit Sends Clear Message on Tough Standard for Sealing Judicial Records.
To more fully understand the Sixth Circuit's interest in sealed judicial records, it is important to understand the foundational case underlying these decisions. In Brown & Williamson, the court took up the issue of sealed court records on its own motion after the issue was raised by a public interest group. Without discussion, the district court had sealed the entire record in the case, which included documents submitted to the FTC pursuant to a confidentiality agreement by Brown & Willliamson and four other cigarette companies in related administrative proceedings. Relying upon both the First Amendment and common law rights of access to judicial records, the Sixth Circuit unsealed all previously sealed documents.
The Brown & Williamson decision relied upon two key Supreme Court decisions: Nixon v. Warner Communications Inc., and Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia. In Nixon, the Supreme Court recognized a common law right of access to judicial records whereas Richmond Newspapers held that there is a consitutional right of access to criminal trials. Based upon the fact that "the open courtroom has been a fundamental feature of the American judicial system," the Brown & Williamson court noted that the principles from Richmond Newspapers also apply to open judicial records "because court records often provide important, sometimes the only, bases or explanations for a court's decision."