Although the power of the judiciary provides courts with opportunities for extraordinary mistakes, that same power delivers the means to remedy errors with relative dispatch. Witness the opening of previously sealed civil lawsuits in Clark County District Court.
Last year, an award-winning Review-Journal investigative series found judges had hidden from the public more than 100 cases since 2000. In addition to the allegations of each dispute, judges sealed their own identities and whatever justification might have existed for sheltering parties from the scrutiny of the taxpayers who fund the courts. The newspaper's investigation determined most cases were sealed solely to spare the wealthy and well-known -- many of them lawyers -- from perceived embarrassment.
In response to the articles, the Nevada Supreme Court took less than a year to enact new rules limiting the sealing of civil cases. Where District Court judges previously exercised unlimited discretion in sealing lawsuits, the new standards require jurists to hear a compelling public argument for privacy and enter a record of the justification for sealing a case, including all parties involved.
The new rules also allowed the Review-Journal to review case files that previously were kept secret. Clark County court clerks recently opened or partially opened several lawsuits of interest to the public:
-- The State Bar of Nevada was named as a co-defendant in a lawsuit filed by a man serving a life sentence in prison. The bar had requested that the case be sealed.
-- KLAS-TV, Channel 8, was named a co-defendant in a lawsuit filed against the Clark County School District and a former teacher serving a prison sentence for sex crimes against students.
-- A case against a manufacturer of artificial hearts alleged the re-use of parts.
-- A lawsuit that accused a Catholic priest of bilking more than $200,000 from an elderly parishioner alleged that a second priest coached the victim before her testimony was taken in a deposition, and that the accused priest was allowed to be present during her deposition. The Diocese of Las Vegas requested that the lawsuit be sealed.
"A trusted priest who admits taking money from his 88-year-old parishioner," stated the plaintiff's argument for keeping the case unsealed, "is the very type of offense the community should know about."
Exactly. Sealed lawsuits undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary. Taxpayers rightly expect that judges will dispense justice fairly, not in secret, and not with special favors to friends and campaign contributors.
We applaud the steps taken by Clark County District Court to return the public's business to public scrutiny and adhere to the rule of law.