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Federal court in St. Louis makes sealing court documents harder

Federal court in St. Louis makes sealing court documents harder

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ST. LOUIS — Federal court judges in St. Louis on Friday announced a new rule that will make sealing court documents more difficult.

The court called the change a “substantial rewrite,” explaining in an announcement that all documents and materials submitted to the court “must be filed in the public record,” unless there are rules that specify otherwise.

The rule takes effect June 1.

The prior rule only required “good cause” to seal civil filings, and didn’t require a publicly filed motion explaining why sealing civil or criminal documents was necessary.

A person can also file a memo challenging any decision to seal a file.

U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Clark has already cited the pending rule in recent weeks when refusing lawyers’ requests to seal documents.

Chief U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel said judges were already considering the issue in 2019 when the Post-Dispatch proposed changes in the sealing rules. The newspaper also proposed rule changes in the Southern District of Illinois and the Western District of Missouri. Meg Robertie, clerk of the southern district, said in an email Friday that a rules committee is being formed to address a variety of changes.

The St. Louis court took up a different proposal filed shortly afterward by the Washington University law school’s First Amendment Clinic.

Lisa Hoppenjans, the clinic’s director, said three different semesters of law students worked on the proposed changes, which were modeled after a similar effort by a law school in New York.

“There’s been a long trend of keeping more and more things under seal,” Hoppenjans said, adding that the change “shows the court is paying attention to this issue.”

She said the rule will hopefully lead to more careful scrutiny by judges of motions to seal documents and lawyers will understand the need to have well-supported reasons to seal records, “not just a desire to keep them out of public view.”

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