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Justice conducted in secret

A Washoe County judge has given advocates of public justice new ammunition in the fight to prevent civil lawsuits from being shrouded in secrecy.

Senior Judge Noel Manoukian decided to seal a wrongful death case brought by the estate of a slain woman against her estranged husband, who is accused of murdering her last year. The judge has decided the litigation will proceed behind closed doors, its developments kept private, to protect defendant Darren Mack’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The judge, who was appointed to the case because most every other Washoe County judge was disqualified due to potential conflicts of interest, has offered no further comment on his decision.

Forget for a moment that Mr. Mack has had no formal opportunity in the case to assert his Fifth Amendment rights. Mr. Mack’s counsel has specifically requested that the case be litigated in the open. And Judge Manoukian received no request from the family of the dead woman, Charla Mack, to seal the case.

The sealing of this lawsuit is yet another example of how judges can act to keep cases filed under the authority of law from public scrutiny.

“The public has the right to know how the civil process of the courts is functioning and whether justice is being done in specific cases,” attorney Scott Glogovac said in a motion filed Friday on behalf of the Reno Gazette-Journal, which is challenging the judge’s decision to seal the case. “In this case, there is great public interest in making sure that all proceedings are conducted fairly and without bias. Closing the proceeding based on a nonasserted constitutional right is simply not consistent with that interest.”

This decision comes on the heels of a Review-Journal investigative series that found Clark County judges have sealed at least 115 civil lawsuits since 2000. In many cases, judges offered no reason for sealing them, keeping their names, the parties involved and the outcomes of the cases secret. In others, the judges clearly sealed cases to protect wealthy, famous and powerful parties from embarrassment.

The newspaper’s investigation prompted the Nevada Supreme Court to establish a Commission on the Preservation, Access and Sealing of Court Records, which met again Monday to set firm guidelines on when judges can kick the taxpaying public out of their own courtrooms and cut them off from their own records.

The commission’s deliberations have taken on greater significance since lawmakers killed a bill that would have guaranteed more openness in court proceedings. Assembly Bill 519 would have required judges to hold public hearings on motions to seal court records and to disclose their reasons for granting them.

The bill would have prevented the kind of Star Chamber-style justice that’s unfolding in Reno, where an unelected judge is cutting off the public from a case when no party filed a motion to do so.

Mr. Mack’s civil lawyer, Mark Wray, told Judge Manoukian two weeks ago that sealing the case was “un-American and against the principles of open court proceedings.”

How will the public ever know whether this appointed judge is ruling in a just and fair manner? How will they know whether he is doing special favors for either party in the case?

We hope the Nevada Supreme Court’s commission takes a close look at this case, not only to help shape its recommendations, but to underscore the need for additional restrictions on a judicial power that threatens to undermine public confidence in the courts.

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