A couple days ago I blogged about RECAP, a system that aims to enhance government transparency by increasing access to court documents. RECAP does this by making it easy for people to share PACER documents after they have paid for them. Today I read that a judge has vacated “legally significant” opinions in a tort case involving trains, high voltage wires, and teens. The case went to 3rd Circuit and was remanded. The District Court Judge vacated the opinions and directed Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis to remove them from their databases. One troubling matter is that it appears the motion to seal is not available. In addition, the decision to vacate the decisions and remove them appears to have been part of a confidential settlement agreement. I am not sure what the rules are for withdrawing a published opinion. There are probably good ones and good procedures for such a move. Then again it may be part of judge’s broad discretionary powers. Here, the way it happened has caused some concern.
In fact, one blogger has decided to post links to many of the vacated opinions, and, yes, RECAP allowed him to do that. In his view, “a court can ever truly ‘unpublish’ a decision, and that law is made every time a court decides any issue.” I am not so sure that is correct. I do think, however, that courts should be more clear as to why they take such actions. Insofar as systems like RECAP help keep government more open and prevent the expunging of records, that is perhaps an unexpected bonus feature to the transparency project. It preserves some truth.
If anyone has information and thoughts about the rules, procedures, and theories allowing a judge being able to unpublish an opinion, please share them.