A state legislator wants to make it tougher for judges to make court records secret.
“Generally, we want people to have access to court cases,” Rep. Aaron Stiles said Tuesday during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
Oklahoma judges now can seal court records from public view in traditionally open cases if they decide it is in the best interest of justice.
“I think what we're trying to do is address a situation where judges can abuse that,” Stiles, an attorney, said at the hearing. “Judges — because they're elected officials — sometimes get political pressure on them perhaps from donors. I've seen attorneys ... in a particular county ... getting their divorce records sealed and prominent figures.”
Stiles, R-Norman, told judges in a letter last month, “My intent is to eliminate the ‘interest of justice' standard and to enumerate the specific situations when records can be sealed so we have a clear and equal rule for all citizens of Oklahoma.”
One judge told Stiles in an email that another judge said he had closed hearings in a probate case and sealed the records “because the family didn't want anybody else knowing their business, and they asked me to.”
Harmon County Associate District Judge Mike Warren also wrote in the email that a judge in a divorce case involving no children had sealed the divorce records “for the very same reason.”
“I think they were both in error,” Warren wrote.
Stiles read from the email during the hearing.
Warren in his email warned, though, against requiring judges to follow only a list in sealing records.
“There will be specific instances that should have been listed that were not listed,” Warren wrote. “There will be instances where … the records in the file should not be seen by the general public because of the great potential of injury to one or more of the parties. Despite anyone's best interests, there will be omissions where people are hurt.”
Osage County District Judge John Kane had the same concern about a list. “I think that the risk outweighs the benefit if you handcuff the process,” he said.
Kane also said, “There could be even a constitutional right to some limited privacy that you might run afoul of if you tell the court they can't seal something that needs to be sealed.”
Stiles noted during the hearing that a couple of judges had suggested in emails that all divorce records should be sealed from the public.
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said at the hearing that open records help the public have faith and confidence in the judiciary.
“The ones that bother us are ... not necessarily the ones that are sealed up in the interest of justice. It's the one that's sealed up in the interest of the judge and sometimes the interest of the clerk,” Thomas said.
“If people are using the public courts, the public have some rights to know what those courts are being used for,” Thomas said.