The policy-making body of the federal judiciary approved a new standard today that instructs judges to limit sealing entire civil cases to only extraordinary circumstances.
The Judicial Conference of the United States said the new policy emphasizes that sealing an entire case should be the last resort.
Judges should first explore narrower alternatives, such as blacking out information or sealing particular documents, the panel said.
Speaking on behalf of the 26-judge conference, Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit told reporters this afternoon that “the court’s business is the people’s business.” Sentelle did not define an "extraordinary" circumstance.
Sentelle said there was no one case that prompted the adoption of the new policy on sealing. He said the issue had been “fermenting for awhile.” There was a general impression among conference members, he said, that federal judges were sealing entire cases too often.
The judicial conference, Sentelle said, today also increased miscellaneous fees for federal courts, a move designed to create an estimated $10.5 million in additional revenue for fiscal year 2012.
The panel approved a fee increase for electronic public access to court records, from $.08 to $.10 a page. The fee for the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system had not been increased since 2005. Sentelle said local, state and federal government agencies will be exempted from the fee increase for three years.
Sentelle said the judiciary is monitoring a pilot program that allows cameras in federal courtrooms. The three-year program began in July. He said there has been too little evidence to generate any conclusive findings.
Participating courts include the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Iowa and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. (In one pending case, the U.S. House of Representatives general counsel’s office has opposed cameras in court.)
Sentelle, the chief of the D.C. Circuit since February 2008, said he will miss his longtime colleague Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who is taking a reduced caseload next month and later joining the faculty of New York University School of Law.
Ginsburg’s decision created a third vacancy on the appeals court. President Barack Obama’s lone nomination to the D.C. Circuit, Caitlin Halligan, narrowly won a committee vote in March. One critic, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) complained then that the D.C. Circuit does not need another judge.
Asked today whether the D.C. Circuit could use the services of another judge, Sentelle did not take a position either way. He said the court is “not behind” on cases and that there is no “heavy” load the present time.
Sentelle said he is not aware whether the judicial conference today received a joint letter from the Alliance for Justice and Common Cause urging the panel to determine whether alleged ethics violations by Justice Clarence Thomas should be referred to the U.S. Justice Department.
At issue, the groups said, are financial disclosure reports in which Thomas indicated “none” regarding the income his wife earned between 1997 and 2007. The groups said the justice’s wife in fact did earn income during that period from the Heritage Foundation.