Insurers Oppose Nevada Bill that Would Open Court Records

May 17, 2007

Judges and an insurance trade association stated that they’re opposed to a bill that would restrict Nevada judges’ ability to seal court records, raising questions about its lack of privacy protections.

Chief Clark County District Judge Kathy Hardcastle told the Senate Judiciary Committee that AB519 would allow personal information and photos of undercover police officers, stalking victims or someone who has had an embarrassing injury to be made public.

“In bringing their disputes before courts, the citizens should not be required by AB519 to give up all rights to privacy,” Hardcastle said.

There also would be no protection for someone who has had a false allegation made against them, she said.

“Under AB519, that case could not be sealed and that untrue allegation would always be out there in the public domain,” said Hardcastle, adding that concerns have been raised by judges in her Las Vegas-based judicial district and also by Reno-based district judges.

The Nevada Supreme Court remains neutral on the proposal, but has set up a commission of judges, attorneys and media representatives to look into the sealing of court documents.

Proponents of the Assembly-approved bill say judges’ discretion to seal court cases has been abused in Nevada to hide information about high-profile litigants or products that are defective.

The American Insurance Association submitted a letter to the committee stating that AB519 should be rejected “because it is unnecessary, unwise and contrary to the public interest.”

The AIA said the “premature release of ultimately unfounded information can be very damaging to a business, a product or an individual party.”

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, requires that a case cannot be sealed unless several conditions are met. That includes the prospect of a serious and imminent danger to the public interest unless something is sealed. A case cannot be sealed if it would hide a public hazard. A public hearing also must be held before sealing records.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, asked whether the bill could violate the separation of powers doctrine, which limits the Legislature’s ability to interfere in judicial matters.

Gary Peck of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said the measure would not pose such a constitutional issue. Joan Neuffer, lawyer for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said the Supreme Court ultimately would decide that issue.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote a series of articles in February revealing that 115 cases had been sealed in Clark County district courts since 2000.

Only the names of those involved in the cases were available, but a review of those names shows judges had sealed cases involving people and groups that are wealthy or wield influence in politics, business, medicine and the courts.

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