The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 22, 2013

Legislation limiting the sealing of court documents should become law in state

Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, has introduced a bill that could prevent courts from sealing any records or files unless specifically authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution or by statute.

We hope that Senate Bill 1041 becomes law. A Senate panel reportedly passed the measure Feb. 12.

“The mere fact that the parties agree shall not be grounds to seal any records or files,” the bill states.

As SB 1041 makes its way through the Legislature, open government advocates are alarmed that the trend of sealing cases is occurring more frequently statewide.

A recent Tulsa World report outlined instances in Oklahoma where judges withheld criminal records, arbitrarily playing “keep away” from the public.

Within hours of the felony charge being filed last summer, District Judge Ray Dean Linder sealed all records in the case, effectively removing the proceedings from public view.

Asked what entitled this particular case to be sealed, Linder replied, “Because I am the district judge.”

But judges “have to have more than their own whim” to keep criminal records hidden from public view, Joey Senat, a board member of FOI Oklahoma Inc., told the Tulsa World.

Higher court rulings have found the public and press have a “presumptive right to judicial documents,” Senat said.

When can such records be sealed? “Only if that right of access is outweighed by a compelling need to protect higher interests,” Senat, a professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University, told the paper.

We believe the courts were created to be a branch of state government, public and open, and ultimately accountable to voters.

The court system was designed to serve the public, all Oklahomans, and criminal cases need to remain open and transparent.

When cases are improperly closed, it gives the appearance of favoritism or improper treatment.

With openness, Oklahomans can have greater confidence in their court system.