By Tanner Bowen
Tanner Bowen is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying business.
“It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” 
In cases involving sealed and unsealed documents, the Supreme Court has developed a policy in which access to court records should be strongly favored. Although parties do enter into agreements to seal documents after a district court trial, the party that moves to seal the records thus has a strong burden of proof to show that there is a “compelling reason” to keep access to these records at a minimum.
To confound issues even more, numerous federal appeals courts have developed different doctrines pertaining to how long documents should be kept sealed or not. The most recent development in this saga occurred recently, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on an automobile safety case using the confusing ideology of “dispositive” and “non-dispositive” motions.
The case Center for Auto Safety v. Chrysler Group arose in 2013 after the plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit alleging defects in some of Chrysler’s vehicles. As part of the discovery process, parties entered into a protective order where certain documents could be designated as “confidential.” In 2014, Chrysler moved to file certain documents as “confidential” in response to a motion for preliminary injunction on behalf of the plaintiffs. At this point, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) intervened and filed a motion to unseal these documents, stating that only compelling reasons could keep these documents under seal.
This “compelling reasons” argument originates from a Ninth Circuit opinion (Kamakana v. City & County of Honolulu). However, there is another standard under compelling reasons that the Ninth Circuit can employ in determining whether to unseal court documents. This is called the “good cause” test, which comes directly from Rule 26(c)(1), which reads: “The court may, for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense . . . .” .
The district court ruled in favor of Chrysler, stating that the case at hand would have only lead to a “nondispositive” discovery. In this sense, the meaning of “dispositive” and “nondispositive” simply addresses whether the evidence uncovered from these documents would bring about a “final determination.”  Here, we can read final determination as a summary judgement or the final decision on a case.
The issue that the Ninth Circuit had with the argument that the evidence uncovered would be nondispositive in nature and thus unnecessary to unseal is that what the Ninth Circuit really meant by this terminology is whether the evidence uncovered is tangentially related to the case. The simple, binary approach that the district court employs in its decision can be appealing, but the real issue at hand is the general nature of the information, not whether the information can lead to an automatic result for the case.
The terms dispositive and nondispositive are not mechanical classifications, but descriptive terms that indicate which certain test should apply. Sometimes there is a “good reason” to keep the public from accessing certain sealed records that are non-dispositive in nature since these records can be unrelated to the case at hand. Indeed, this is to protect individuals from those who will try fishing for anything in court records.
But, the true test in this case is whether the court considers the evidence discovered to be related to the case enough. Just because nondispositive motions are sometimes not tangentially related to the merits of a case does not mean that other technically non-dispositive motions (such as routine motions in limine) are strongly related to the merits of a case. The same can apply for motions that are technically “dispositive” in nature.
Once you wrap your head around the confusing jargon employed by the Ninth Circuit, the point of all of this legalese is relatively simple: to foster a sense of openness about the judicial system which simultaneously protecting parties involved in litigation. The simple structure of the judiciary being an independent entity often leaves the public wary about the effectiveness of justice being administered through the courts. Having an open policy about access to court records helps the public not only understand public events, but also the judicial process.
On the other hand, some individuals will search through pages and pages of useless documents in the hope of finding something malicious or libelous in nature. That is where a fine line must be drawn in the access to court records. Our rights to access are established, but privacy and protection are also guaranteed. That is why the court system has allowed judges to decide the merits of keeping documents sealed on a case-by-case basis. This is why we must constantly search to balance the rights of litigators and inquiring individuals.
In the end, “applying a strong presumption of access to documents a court has already decided should be shielded from the public would surely undermine, and possibly eviscerate, the broad power of the district court to fashion protective orders” . Thus, the U.S. courts will always be considering these two factors in future cases pertaining to sealed court documents.
 Nixon v. Warners Communications Inc., , 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978).
 Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 26(c)(1).
 Black Law’s Dictionary 540 (10th ed. 2014).
 Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 33 (1984).
Photo Credit: Flickr User Daniel Oines
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.