Jennifer A. Crissman, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group
I must confess, as a family law attorney I cannot help reading about celebrity relationships. I find that even though it feels like celebrities are untouchable and have very different lives than our own when a celebrity relationship ends the same scenarios arise. Separation and divorce are the great equalizers, and no one is immune. If you have followed the recent celebrity news, you may have seen that Brad Pitt filed a motion this month asking the court in California for an emergency hearing on sealing the court file containing the details of his separation from Angelina Jolie. His argument was that he wanted to protect the couple’s six children from intense worldwide scrutiny.
The court denied his request for an emergency hearing, but there will be a hearing in January on whether to seal the file. As an observer, you may wonder why the court would not grant an emergency hearing on such a motion. It seems like a reasonable request; a parent urgently wants to protect his children’s privacy from nosy reporters, paparazzi, and onlookers. However, this is not enough for the court to grant an emergency hearing or to seal a file.
With regards to sealing a file, the public has the right to view court records which arises under both the common law and the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The rationale for this right is that the public monitoring of the judiciary is key to a functioning democracy. If judges were able to seal court files and close courtrooms freely, the public would have no way of monitoring the behavior of the judicial branch. Although the general presumption is that court records are open for public inspection and viewing, there are some ways to get a court file or at least portions sealed.
Attempting to have an entire court file sealed is no easy feat. In North Carolina, if a party moves to seal an entire court file, the district court has several hoops to jump through. The court must give notice to the public of the request to seal and an opportunity to challenge the request, the court must consider less drastic alternatives to sealing, and the judge must provide the specific reasoning for sealing the court file. In re Knight Publishing Co., 743 F.2d 231 (4th Cir. 1984). Less drastic alternatives to sealing an entire court file can include sealing only a portion of the file, redacting private information, or otherwise limiting what the public will have the ability to access.
When documents in a court file contain private personal identifying information or medical information, there are general provisions in place to protect the individual. For instance, in North Carolina, the Public Records Act prohibits court filings that contain social security numbers, bank account numbers, passwords, PIN numbers, or other private information that has not been redacted. Medical records are protected by HIPAA and are typically produced to the court file under seal unless the Court has issued an Order directing otherwise.
Ultimately, whether an entire court file or just a portion of it is sealed from the public depends on the judge, the information in the file, and the parties involved. A judge will typically not seal an entire court file unless there is a compelling public interest that outweighs the fundamental right to access court proceedings.
As to why the court denied Mr. Pitt an emergency hearing, we can only speculate. The most likely reason is that the Court is overburdened with cases much older that need to be heard first. It is likely that Mr. Pitt has discovered the courts will treat him and his family the same as any other family going through a separation and custody proceeding.