In mid-December 2012, according to the Observer-Reporter, a Pennsylvania publication, a request to unseal a legal settlement between a Mt. Pleasant Township couple and gas drilling companies was requested in Washington County Court.
Attorneys for the Observer-Reporter and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette filed a petition in favor of unsealing the legal settlement between Stephanie and Chris Hallowich and Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream. The request came after the state Superior Court ruled the matter should return and be heard by a trial court here.
The couple claimed nearby drilling operations, a compressor station and a gas processing plant resulted in their property being worthless and created health risks to them. The lawsuit was settled in August 2011, after a meeting not open to the press in the chambers of currently retired Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky. The case file was sealed afterwards, and all parties were not allowed to discuss any part of the agreement.
In August 2011 a reporter objected to the sealing of the legal settlement. The newspapers argue that sealing the record violated of the common law rights of the media. When it comes to the sealing of court records, the media has long argued that pursuant to the public’s presumptive common law right to inspect and copy judicial records and documents, according to Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978).
When people want court records sealed, they usually need to give reasons to explain why secrecy is necessary, and in the absence of any such justification the sealed documents must be open to the public. In SEC v. Van Waeyenberghe, 990 F.2d 845, 848 849 (5th Cir. 1993), the court overturned the district court’s decision to seal documents without balancing the competing interests involved.
A presumption of openness serves to promote trustworthiness of the judicial process, to curb judicial abuses, and to provide the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system, including a better perception of its fairness, according to the Van Waeyenberghe case.
In Baxter Int’l v. Abbott Labs., 297 F.3d 544, 545 (7th Cir. 2002), the Seventh Circuit explained:
“Information transmitted to the court of appeals is presumptively public because the appellate record normally is vital to the case’s outcome. Agreements that were appropriate at the discovery stage are no longer appropriate for the few documents that determine the resolution of an appeal, so any claim of secrecy must be reviewed independently in this court.”
According to a common law right, media companies argue documents should be made available for public review when they properly come before the court in the course of an adjudicatory proceeding and relevant to the adjudication.