Put A Lid On It! – Seal Public Records

Motion to Seal Records: Asking a Judge to Seal Records from the Public View

Have you ever read about a court case in the news? Of course. We all have. Have you ever seen a reporter holding what looks like a stack of court documents, or maybe heard snippets of court documents read aloud or shown on the TV screen? Again, most likely you have. But have you ever thought where they came from? Well, the media doesn’t have any special access to court documents, or get them from some elaborate, secretive journalistic venture. No, most court documents are freely available to anyone in the public who wishes to see them. But there is a way to keep documents from a civil proceeding from public view.

In a civil proceeding, a party can ask the court to seal records of the proceedings from public inspection. The law governing the sealing of records is found under the Maryland Rules, Rule 16-1001 to 16-1011.

To seal court records, a party must file a Motion to Seal Records, in accordance with Rule 16-1009(a). The common law and statutory presumption is for court records to remain open to the public for inspection. To overcome this presumption and to grant a Motion to Seal Records, the judge must find a “special and compelling reason” as required under 16-1009(d)(4)*. The trial judge has discretion to find a “special and compelling reason,” but the judge must articulate factors that led to the decision and the interests being protecting in sealing court records. (An example of a “special and compelling reason” to seal may include personal and sensitive information about minor children contained in a child custody report. See Sumpter v. Sumpter, 427 Md. 668 (2012). Other examples may include instances of untrue and defamatory statements, or trades secret or other proprietary information that has commercial value.)

If a judge does find a compelling enough reason for records to be sealed, a Final Order is issued. In accordance with 16-1009(d)(3), the judge’s order must be “as narrow as practicable in scope and duration to effectuate the interest sought to be protected by the order.”** In other words, in keeping with the presumption that court records remain open, even if the Motion to Seal Records is granted, only certain parts of the record may be sealed. This might still be a desirable result for the party filing the motion because the sealed portions could very well contain all the most offending or sensitive information. But it should be noted again that sealing has its limitations, if the trial judge grants the Motion to Seal Records in the first place.

In summary, a party can ask for records in a civil proceeding to be sealed, but it is no guarantee. In fact, it is more likely that the motion to seal with be denied because the presumption is that court records remain open. However, if there is a compelling reason why records should be sealed, the judge had discretion to seal all or a portion of the sensitive information from public view, in accordance with law under Rule 16-1009, et seq.

Fred Antenberg is an attorney in Columbia, Maryland who handles family law issues in Howard County, Maryland and surrounding counties.  CONTACT Fred at 410-730-4404.

*”In determining whether to permit or deny inspection, the court shall consider…whether a special and compelling reason exists to preclude or limit inspection of the particular case record…” Maryland Rules, Rule 16-1009(d)(4)(A).

**”A final order that precludes or limits inspection of a case record shall be as narrow as practicable in scope and duration to effectuate the interest sought to be protected by the order.” Maryland Rules, Rule 16-1009(d)(3)