Judicial sunshine: Access to courts and court documents in North Carolina

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By Caroline Curran, Reporter

BOLIVIA—The courthouse can be an intimidating place, even if you don’t find yourself in the defendant’s chair.

But the law provides that Lady Justice’s courts are open, as are her records.

In fact, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said more than 75 years ago, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Brandeis’ words are just as powerful today as in 1933, and are backed by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions.

Article 1, Section 18, of the N.C. Constitution states, “All courts shall remain open.”

If that’s not clear enough, the General Assembly enacted General Statute 7A-276.1, which states, “No court shall make or issue any rule or order banning, prohibiting, or restricting the publication or broadcast of any report concerning any of the following: any evidence, testimony, argument, ruling, verdict decision, judgment, or other matter occurring in open court in any hearing, trial or other proceeding, civil or criminal; and no court shall issue any rule or order sealing, prohibiting, restricting the publication or broadcast of the contents of any public record defined by any statute of the state, which is required to be open to public inspection under any valid statute, regulation, or rule of common law.

“If any rule or order is made or issued by any court in violation of the provisions of this statute, it shall be null and void and of no effect, and no person shall be punished for contempt for the violation of any such order.”

Public court documents

•Opinions issued by the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court are public records. Opinions are available in each courts’ respective clerks’ offices in Raleigh, or at the North Carolina Court website, www.nccourts.org.

•Casefolders and documents. Unless these are sealed, the documents contained in a casefolder are public records.

•Criminal histories. Anyone can run a criminal history check at the clerk of courts office.

•Evidence admitted at trial. Once evidence is admitted in open court it enters the public domain and becomes public record.

•Government settlements are public records unless they are sealed by a judge.

•Grand jury indictments. While grand jury proceedings are secret, once a grand jury returns a true bill of indictment, it becomes a public record.

•Search warrants become public once they are served and housed in the clerk of courts office.

The following court documents are not public record: adoption records, civil discovery, commitment records, notes and records from criminal investigations while they are being conducted, juvenile records and medical reports.

Per N.C. General Statute 7A-308(a)(12), copies obtained from clerks of court cost $2 for the first page and 25 cents for each additional page.

Other exceptions to the general rule of open court proceedings include:

•Grand jury proceedings. Grand jury proceedings at the state and the federal level are private. A grand jury determines whether the state or the U.S. prosecutors’ offices have enough evidence to proceed with criminal charges.

•Commitment hearings. While the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled the public has no right to access of involuntary civil commitment hearings, N.C. General Statute 122C-268.1(g) state in criminal hearings, commitment hearings for defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity must be in the court where the original trial took place.

•Trade secrets. Statutes dictate a courtroom can be closed while trade secrets are discussed.