UPDATES & ANALYSIS

12.06

Iowa Supreme Court cites state records law in sealing court records

by Rox Laird | December 6, 2016

The Iowa Supreme Court Friday said a Linn County District judge failed to correctly follow the Iowa open-records law in sealing court documents in a civil case.

The trial court could ultimately decide to keep the documents under seal, but it must first conduct a hearing as spelled out in Iowa Code Chapter 22, the open-records law.

Still, while the outcome may not change, Friday’s decision (Langholz v. Brumbaugh) is noteworthy because the Supreme Court did not base its decision on the inherent authority of the Judicial Branch to decide when court records may be sealed. Rather, the Court based its ruling on an act of the General Assembly governing public access to records of state and local governments.

The unanimous ruling by Justice Bruce Zager made a reference in a footnote to the “inherent authority of the district court to seal records of court proceedings,” but went on to say it is not necessary to address the issue of inherent authority in order to resolve this case because “the legislature has provided a mechanism to resolve disputes involving the sealing of public records in chapter 22.”

In other words, the decision avoided a separation-of-powers issue.

In the Linn County case, the trial judge issued an injunction barring a male softball coach from having contact with a female minor he formerly coached. To protect the privacy of the minor, the trial court ordered that the ruling containing the terms of the injunction be sealed and “shall not be disseminated in any manner by the parties and their counsel.”

The court order spelling out the terms of the injunction does not fit any one of the 67 exceptions in the open-records statute, however, Zager wrote, and the trial judge failed to follow the procedure for sealing the court records on alternative legal grounds.

Wrote Zager: “We now hold that if no exclusions apply under section 22.7, and the sole injunctive relief sought is under 22.8, the district court must conduct a hearing and make factual findings as provided by the statute. By enacting the Iowa Open Records Act, the legislature enacted a statutory scheme intended to address when public records may be sealed. Here, this procedure was not followed by the district court.”

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