In Nineteen Eighty-Four
, George Orwell described a slot he called a "memory hole" where public records could be disposed of so completely that the events recited in those records could be claimed to have never occurred. The manner in which the Middlesex County Superior Court's Civil Division "seals" court files is reminiscent of Orwell's dystopia.
No one disputes that certain records
within a court's file (those that identify a sexually abused child, for example) should be excluded from the public record. But the fact that such a record may be contained within a court file does not justify suppression of the entire file
and certainly doesn't allow the court to wipe the file's very existence from the public docket. This is especially true when the defendant in the case is a taxpayer-funded, public agency.
But, for the second time in as many years, I have found that the Middlesex court has suppressed a pending court case involving a government agency so thoroughly that no indication of the case's existence can be found on the public docket.
Following is my e-mail the the Middlesex Court's Ombudsman. I will post on this blog any responses that I receive.
February 13, 2017
Luis M. Hernandez, Ombudsman
Middlesex County Superior Court
Via e-mail only to MiddlesexHelp.firstname.lastname@example.org
RE: Improper "sealing" of court dockets
Dear Mr. Hernandez:
On May 3, 2015, I wrote an article entitled "Sealing of OPRA case turns out to be in error." The article concerned a clerical error in the Civil Division Manager's office to "seal" an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case thus making the case "invisible" to anyone searching for it on the Automated Case Management System (ACMS). As noted in the article, I specifically asked the Civil Division Manager's office for "procedural safeguards to prevent the improper sealing of future cases."
Today, I searched the ACMS for a civil case captioned Child M. v. Montville Board of Education, Docket No. MID-L-6011-12 and the ACMS reported that the case was sealed. (Note that no information other than "Case Sealed" is available.) This is a case where a minor student accused the Montville school district of allowing a male teacher who had been accused of sexual misconduct toward students to resign. His resignation permitted the teacher to be rehired by another school where he allegedly continued in his misconduct to the student-plaintiff's detriment. The Montville school district's dismissal from the suit was reversed by an August 25, 2016 Appellate Division decision which remanded the matter back to the Middlesex County trial court. (For background, see the August 25, 2016 Daily Record article entitled "Court: Montville school officials had duty to report 'touchy-feely' teacher.")
While I understand that certain records within the case need to be sealed (e.g. those that identify the child victim, etc.), there is no legitimate reason to seal the entire file and deprive the public from even knowing about the lawsuit's existence. At the very least, a person who searches the ACMS for "Montville Board of Education" should be able to identify that this case exists. As it is, the case has simply "disappeared" from the system.
I ask that you investigate this matter. If you find that the sealing of the entire case file was a clerical error, it is not enough for you to simply have this specific instance of the error corrected. Given that this the second "disappeared" Middlesex case I have encountered in less than two years, it is very likely that there are others that I do not (and, indeed, cannot) know about. The absence from the public record of these cases' very existence is troubling.
I look forward to hearing from you regarding this matter.
Very truly yours,