Judge pledges to emphasize open records

A day after Republican state lawmakers killed a proposal to keep court records open to the public, the chairman of a newly formed state commission insisted the group will issue prompt, meaningful recommendations aimed at keeping court records open.

Washoe County District Court Judge Brent Adams said Friday the state Supreme Court's Commission on Preservation, Access and Sealing of Court Records will operate under the premise that all court records and hearings should be open, and then consider extraordinary circumstances under which records may be sealed from public view.

"The risk of abuse of discretion in sealing records demonstrates the need for carefully defining any exception to an open-records policy," Adams said. "If a record is sealed, it is very difficult to do something about it after it is sealed."

The commission, which holds its first meeting Monday, will be expected to issue recommendations to the state Supreme Court within 90 days, Adams said. All commission meetings will be open to the public, he said.

Nevada statutes outline circumstances under which Family Court cases, such as divorces, and criminal cases may be sealed. But no clear rules have been established for District Court judges who are asked to close a civil case record, or the entire case file, to public view.

A Review-Journal series in February showed that Clark County District Court judges between 2000 and 2006 sealed at least 115 lawsuits. As a result, the public and media are not allowed to peruse lawsuits involving elected officials, judges and their relatives, casino executives, doctors, corporations, attorneys and others.

"I feel very, very strongly about this subject. This is not just a private, little dispute-resolution store we are running. It is a public, legal institution, and the public has the right to expect all court records are open unless there is a strong and specific justification to keep something confidential," said Adams, who has been a Reno judge for nearly 18 years but was a Review-Journal reporter in the late 1960s.

The commission's first meeting comes four days after the Republican majority on the state Senate Judiciary Committee killed on a 4-3 vote a bill that would have set limits on the authority judges claim to seal cases. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, in response to the Review-Journal series, was supported on a 39-2 vote April 18 in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.

Under the bill, no court records could be closed unless release of information posed a danger to the public. Interested parties, such as the media, would have been invited to public hearings where they could object to sealing.

In opposing the bill, Judiciary Committee Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, and other opponents said it would be better to have the Supreme Court commission craft recommendations than to forward the bill to the state Senate floor.

Adams on Friday dismissed the suggestion that the Supreme Court commission was formed simply to give the appearance of reform, or that the commission's recommendations would result in a diluted version of the defeated legislation.

"If I didn't think it was a legitimate, serious process, I wouldn't be involved," Adams said. "I am too old and too ugly to be used by someone else as window dressing."

Also, Adams pointed out that the committee includes members of the media, others who were in the media, and attorneys who have represented the media. They and the other members take the issue of open courts very seriously, he said.

Committee members include Gary Hengstler, director of the Reynolds National Center for the Courts and Media in Reno; Barry Smith, director of the Nevada Press Association; attorney Don Campbell, who has represented the Review-Journal on cases involving government records; state Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, an attorney who has represented the Nevada Press Association and the Reno Gazette-Journal; Nancyann Leeder, a state official whose office represents injured employees in worker's compensation cases and a reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal in the early 1970s; and A.D. Hopkins, longtime reporter and editor for the Review-Journal.

Other commission members include attorneys Dan Bowen, Edward Lemons, Kim Mandelbaum and Kathy England; David Gamble, a District Court judge in Minden; and attorneys Richard Myers and Joe Bradley, who both represent the Nevada Justice Association, formerly known as the Nevada Trial Lawyers Association.