Wednesday, March 13, 2013

State Senate approves bill limiting authority of judges to seal court records

The state Senate approved a bill Tuesday that bans Oklahoma judges from sealing court records simply because both parties agreed to the closure.
"The mere fact that the parties agree shall not be grounds to seal any records or files," states Senate Bill 1041.
The bill by Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, and Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, passed the Senate 43-0. Its first reading in the House was today.
Under their bill:
A court shall not seal any records or files unless specifically authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution or by statute. Prior to issuing an order sealing any records or files, the court shall make written findings of fact and conclusions of law that shall be incorporated into the order along with the specific provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution or statute that authorize such an order.
Any prior orders sealing records or files inconsistent with the requirements of this section shall be in compliance within one (1) year of the effective date of this act or shall be null and void.
The bill's effective date would be Nov. 1.
Any resident of the county in which a case record is sealed would have standing to challenge the closure and be entitled to attorney fees and court costs.
Judges could be impeached for sealing records without issuing a written finding of fact and conclusion of law that includes the state Constitution provision or statute authorizing the closure.
The sealing of court records in Oklahoma has been an issue for several years.
In May, for example, District Judge Ray Dean Linder sealed records of a felony perjury charge filed against an Enid attorney. Linder's reason: "Because I am the district judge. And it will remain sealed until I say it shouldn’t be sealed."
The Enid News & Eagle challenged that closure, and another judge overturned Linder. For its efforts, the newspaper received FOI Oklahoma's Marian Opala First Amendment Award on Saturday.
Last month, the Tulsa World reported that records in more than a dozen criminal cases had been ordered sealed in the past year in Tulsa County District Court.
Among those was a Tulsa judge's order sealing all records involving a material witness to a quadruple slaying. The witness was secretly jailed for more than a month. Records related to her case weren't unsealed until the Tulsa World began asking questions about the woman's incarceration.
In 2011, a Tulsa oilman's divorce case in Osage County was opened after the editor of The Bigheart Times questioned why the entire case, including the names of the couple, lawyers and judge, had been sealed. Even the order sealing the case had been closed to the public.
In 2010, an Oklahoma County district judge sealed the transcript of an open court hearing in which she had a heated argument with prosecutors. The transcript was unsealed after FOX 25 questioned why it has been closed to the public.
In 2008, the Tulsa World reported that the state's district judges had sealed thousands of court cases and documents — mostly because attorneys had simply asked them to — since 2003.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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