As a result of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), court records are considered a matter of public interest and are therefore mandated as public records. Transcripts from a court trial can be accessed and read by anyone—including those not associated with the trial—to gain information about the proceedings, trial tactics, or verdict outcomes.
However, to protect the rights of those involved within certain cases, the FOIA provides for specific exemptions for sealing court records. By sealing records (or sections of a court record) the court can forbid the public—including reporters, civilians, or your competitor attorneys—access to the information and keep delicate and personal information confidential.
FOIA Public Record Restrictions
Records that deal with communication between the following parties are generally sealed to prevent privacy invasion, public ridicule, and further injury to the victim, client, or defendant.
- Doctor and patient (including physicians, surgeons, healthcare providers, therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists). Doctor-patient privilege usually prevents a medical professional from being able to divulge a patient’s medical history without consent. However, when the information is pertinent to a case, a doctor’s records and testimony may reveal extremely personal facts about the patient. As a result, although necessary for the trial and recorded within the transcript, this information does not need to be shared with the public. In fact, divulging personal information of this nature to the public would be against legal and ethical rules. Consequently, many medical testimonies that deal with personal information are sealed to prevent invasion of privacy by the public.
- Counselors, therapists, and social workers and their clients (including physical assault sexual assault, marital, and drug counselors). Similar to doctor–patient confidentiality, the information that a victim provides to a counselor is legally protected. However, when that information is needed in a trial, it must be recorded in the transcript. To protect the victim’s rights, that record will be sealed to prevent public viewing.
Virginia State-Specific FOIA Exemptions
The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council has broadened the sealing exemptions of the Federal FOIA to include the following types of court records.
- Records dealing with personnel, to keep identifiable information such as Social Security numbers, insurance information, family relations, and the like private and secure.
- Records subject to attorney-client privilege. This is modeled on the conventional exemption for doctor and their patients.
- Records dealing with vendor proprietary information, to protect copyright, patent, and creative rights.
- Records relating to contract negotiations and awards, to protect the integrity of the deal and prevent leaked information from affecting negotiations.
- Records that describe or relate to IT security and access control, to prevent security breaches or hacking.
- Records that relate to preventing or responding to cyber-attacks, to prevent exploiting security vulnerabilities or jeopardizing the effectiveness of the procedures (which in turn would jeopardize safety).
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