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Florida Supreme Court Enacts Rules Regulating “Super Sealing” of Court Records

Florida Supreme Court Enacts Rules Regulating "Super Sealing" of Court Records

by David M. Reutter

On April 5, 2007, the Florida Supreme Court implemented new rules that "provide a procedural vehicle for making circuit and county court records in non-criminal cases confidential." The rules were made to address "highly serious concerns" identified by mainstream media about hidden cases and secret dockets, sometimes called "super sealing."

The Court stated that the Florida Constitution mandates public access to court records, subject only to a narrow category of records where public access is automatically restricted by operation of state or federal law or court rule, such as in child dependency cases. "Otherwise, our rules strongly disfavor court records that are hidden from public scrutiny," the Court said. "The rules provide only a limited veil that is restricted to a second category of court records where a set of carefully defined interest are involved."

Instead, some courts were super sealing the divorce cases of local celebrities or the wealthy. To address this practice that was "clearly offensive to the spirit of laws and rules that ultimately rest on Florida's well-established public policy of government in the sunshine," the Court implemented strict procedures before any portion of records in a court case can be held confidential.

The Court adopted eight specific procedures: 1) A written motion must be made to make court records confidential; 2) A public hearing must be held on contested motions or certain uncontested ones; 3) the sealing order state with specificity the grounds for sealing and the finding that justifies sealing; 4) sealing orders must be public; 5) a non party may move to vacate a sealing order; 6) a public hearing must be held on contested sealing motions or certain uncontested motions; 7) the court may impose sanctions on any party files a sealing motion without a sound factual and legal basis or not filed in good faith; and 8) "the case number, docket number, or other identifying number of a case cannot be made confidential," which prohibits "the removal from public view of all information acknowledging the existence of a case."

Any sealing motion automatically makes records subject to the motion confidential upon the motion being filed. The court reviewing the motion must rule within 30 days of the motion being filed. The new rules are on an emergency interim basis and are found in Rule 2.140(d) of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration.

Those rules specifically apply only to non-criminal cases. The Court ordered the Florida Bar's Rules of Judicial Administration Committee to review procedures for sealing records in criminal cases and in appellate courts. PLN will report future developments on this topic. See: In re: Amendments to Rule of Judicial Administration 2.420--Sealing of Court Records and Dockets, 954 So. 2d 16 (Fla. 2007).

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Related legal case

In re: Amendments to Rule of Judicial Administration 2.420—Sealing of Court Records and Dockets