WASHINGTON — Federal judges often seal cases that come before them for questionable reasons and allow case files to remain secret from public scrutiny long after the reasons for secrecy have lapsed, a year-long study by the federal court system's research agency has found.
The report by the Federal Judicial Center was completed in October but was posted on the center's Web site without fanfare only in late December.
The study makes no recommendations about how federal judges should deal with requests that cases be sealed. But as the most systematic look to date at how federal cases are sealed, it provided several examples of questionable decisions.
"There was one (criminal) case sealed," the report noted, "because the defendant had a high profile. According to the judge, 'It seemed a good idea at the time.' A person of influence failed to respect the authority of an officer on federal land."
At least four civil cases were sealed, the judges explained, to protect the reputation of doctors. In another case, a civil case was sealed because it involved an "action alleging rape by former high-visibility university athletes."
Among the study's findings:
-- Of the 245,326 civil cases filed in the study year of 2006, 576 were sealed.
-- Nearly a third of the sealed cases were so-called qui tam actions, which are cases filed by whistleblowers alleging fraud by government contractors. By law, they must remain sealed for 60 days while the government investigates the charges. Of the other cases, some were sealed because they involved allegations of childhood sexual abuse. Some were sealed because they involved national security, including intellectual property used in the development of a nuclear weapon. Some were sealed to protect confidential settlements.
-- A greater percentage of criminal cases were sealed than civil cases. Analysts found 1,077 cases sealed out of 66,458 criminal actions. Of these, 241 were sealed because they involved criminal informants and 284 were sealed because authorities didn't want to tip off defendants before they'd been arrested. Protecting the identity of juvenile defendants figured in the sealing of 180 cases.
-- Bankruptcy courts don't seal cases, though they occasionally expunge cases judges determine to be fraudulent.
The issue of when a case should be sealed is a sensitive one. U.S. courts generally are open to the public, a tradition intended to instill faith that proceedings are fair and influenced only by evidence and legal precedent.
The study found, however, that judicial districts in the United States have differing policies on when to seal cases, with some judicial districts granting a seal whenever one of the parties in the case requests one. Other districts are stricter about when a case can be sealed and more diligent in making certain that cases are unsealed, of for pragmatic, rather than philosophical reasons.
"Some courts have implemented procedures to periodically check whether sealed records — individual documents or whole cases — can be unsealed, in part because sealed records are more burdensome for clerks' offices to maintain than open records," the study said.
The study also concluded that in instances where a case has been sealed as soon as it is filed, "there will almost never be an opportunity" for the public to challenge the secrecy "because there will be no public record of the case."
The study said it had not tried to determine how many cases first filed openly were then successfully sealed. It suggested such cases would likely be rare "if the news media were actively interested in the case."