Panel OKs bill to limit judges

A proposal that would limit the authority of judges to seal lawsuits from public view is headed to the Assembly after a committee voted in favor of the bill Wednesday.

Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said that despite the committee’s strong support for AB519, there are Assembly members who have questioned the need for it.

“I don’t think it’s smooth sailing,” he said of the bill’s future. “There are those who are still concerned about the question of whether sealing records is a good thing … and that we shouldn’t challenge the courts relative to that question.”

The bill, which Anderson said was authored by the Judiciary Committee in response to articles in the Review-Journal, would establish rules for judges considering sealing a lawsuit from public view.

Committee members and others in support of the proposal, such as the Nevada Press Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said it is an important step in protecting the public from dangerous products or practices by keeping open to public view lawsuits alleging medical malpractice, product liability, defective tires and other problems.

Nobody spoke in opposition to the bill at a hearing Friday.

The bill would prohibit judges from sealing judicial public records unless a “preponderance of the evidence” shows that sealing the records will not conceal a public hazard; that releasing the information publicly would create a danger to the public interest; that there is no reasonable method other than sealing to avoid such effects; and that there is substantial probability that sealing the record would be effective in protecting the public interest.

The measure would require a judge to have a separate hearing to weigh the merits of sealing a particular court record, and the judge would be required to notify the public about the hearing and allow the public to present evidence at that hearing.

The bill would require a judge, when sealing a court record under the guidelines, to unseal the record at the “earliest possible time after the circumstances necessitating the sealing no longer exist.”

Anderson said the committee included an amendment to the bill that clarifies that there are existing laws that dictate the rules for expunging criminal records from public view.

Committee members asked for the legislation in response to Review-Journal stories published in February showing that Clark County District Court judges had sealed 115 civil cases between 2000 and late 2006.

In the articles, judges claimed to have inherent authority to seal lawsuits, but critics said keeping lawsuits from public view is generally prohibited by Nevada law.

No information is available to the public about those sealed lawsuits, but the Review-Journal was provided with the identities of litigants in each case. They include people and groups that are wealthy or wield influence in politics, business, medicine and the courts.

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