What does it mean to file something under seal?

By Jed McKeehan

You may or may not have realized this, but almost all court documents are public records.  If you really wanted to, you could show up at the courthouse and peruse court filings.  In fact, bored reporters may do just that, looking to find a juicy story from a filed lawsuit.

Most cases do not qualify for anything about them to be kept under seal.  However, some cases, or parts of some cases, are not open to the public.  You may have heard of documents being filed under seal, but what does that mean exactly?  It generally means that documents are filed in a closed, manilla envelope with words on the outside of the envelope stating that the contents are to be “filed under seal.”

One of the most common things to be filed under seal is that the statistical data of the parties in a divorce action.  The statistical data contains the parties’ social security numbers and so the courts require that it be filed under seal.

Other cases whether the documents are not necessarily “under seal,” but they are not open to the public, are juvenile records.  The records for juvenile cases are not open to the public.

Similarly, order of protection cases and criminal cases involving domestic violence are typically cases where the access to the court files by the public is restricted or the information on the victim is.

If a case involves a sensitive matter, or a juvenile party in a civil case (like a car wreck), then that may be reason for the court to file documents under seal.  Likewise, the case may be of such a sensitive nature that the court decides that the court documents need to be sealed.

What if you want to look at something that is filed “under seal?”  Well, usually it takes filing a motion and asking the judge to “unseal,” the documents filed under seal and allowing you to look at them.  Quite the process, just to look at some documents that may or may not matter, but that may very well be the point in filing something under seal in the first place.

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