Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest v. Maile

This case concerns whether a rule of the Hawaii State Courts violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that there can be no guarantee of free speech on matters concerning our justice system unless the public has access to see what happens in court cases.  Thus, the First Amendment protects the public’s right of access to many court records.

There are exceptions.  When an exception justifies sealing court records, a member of the public looking at the court file normally can read why the judge concluded that sealing in that particular case was appropriate.  This case-by-case analysis protects the presumption of public access to court records.

That is why blanket authority to withhold information in court records is rare and limited in scope.  In federal court, for example, rules require redaction of social security numbers, dates of birth, minor’s names, and financial account numbers.

The Hawaii Court Records Rules, however, authorize blanket sealing for “medical and health records.”  The Hawaii Supreme Court broadly interpreted that rule to allow parties, regardless of the circumstances, to file such documents under seal–hidden from the public–without an individualized case-by-case judicial analysis as required by the First Amendment.

The Law Center has challenged the constitutionality of the blanket sealing rule and seeks an injunction to keep the court clerks from enforcing the rule and denying public access.  The case was assigned to the Honorable Derrick K. Watson.  No. 22-CV-386.  On December 27, 2022, Judge Watson held that requiring the public to file a motion to unseal is constitutionally permissible.  The Law Center appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit.  The Court of Appeals heard oral argument on February 15, 2024.  No. 23-15108.