By Carrie Campbell, J.D.
The general rule is that Texas court records are open to the public unless any given record has been "sealed." According to the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, to "seal" a record requires that one of the party’s file a written motion with the court, and thereafter, a public hearing be held. The notice for the hearing must be posted in a public place and state the details of the time and date of the hearing, and specifics of the motion. After a consideration of the evidence presented at the hearing, a judge MAY seal a record IF it has been proven that: (1) "a specific, serious and substantial interest" exists that is more important that the public’s right to know, and (2) there are no other available, workable alternatives. At no time can a court order or judge’s opinion be sealed.
There are some further limitations, however, by the application of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure’s definition of "court records." For these purposes, a court record is any document filed with the court, except cases arising out of the Family Code or files to which access is "otherwise restricted by law." Most often, restrictions imposed by legislation result from issues of general public health or safety. In addition to filed documents, "court records" also include settlement agreements or discovery that have a likely negative effect on (1) public health or safety, (2) the administration of a public office, or (3) the operation of government.
If a judge signs an Order to seal records, he or she must state in the written Order, which is itself open to the public, the case and the particular reasons why certain information is protected, and the time period for which the records will be sealed. To unseal records prior to the expiration of the time period requires additional litigation to demonstrate that the factors balanced in sealing the records have altered substantially. To learn more about sealing or unsealing court records, consult with an attorney of your choice.