When A Little Sunshine May Cause A Burn

According to Senator Herb Kohl, the intention of the "Sunshine in Litigation Act of 2009" (S. 537) is to require federal judges to perform a " simple balancing test" to ensure that in any proposed secrecy order, the defendant’s interest in secrecy truly outweighs the public interest in information related to public health and safety.  Citing court-approved confidential settlement agreements in product liability cases entered into by drug and tire manufacturers, Senator Kohl argues that federal judges must be required to consider public health and safety when deciding whether to allow a secrecy order.   Although this proposal may have a populist appeal, the  American Bar Association believes that the proposed law would make discovery more burdensome, more expensive, and more time-consuming, and would threaten important privacy interests.  The Act would change Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) by limiting a court’s ability to enter an order in a civil case: (1) restricting disclosure of information obtained through discovery; (2) approving a settlement agreement restricting the disclosure of such information; or (3) restricting access to court records in civil cases. Before entering a secrecy order, a court would first have to perform the balancing test discussed by Senator Kohl or reach a determination that the order would not restrict the disclosure of information relevant to the protection of public health or safety.  I concur with the ABA that the Sunshine Act is a bad idea; its adoption would not serve the public interest.

The Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States reported last year that empirical studies demonstrate that there is no evidence that protective orders create a significant problem of concealing information about public hazards.  The Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Civil Rules strongly opposes the measure as unnecessary legislation that will burden the courts and have significant adverse consequences for civil litigation.  Moreover, the ABA already has adopted policy that encourages courts to permit disclosure of information relevant to potential hazards.  Typically, in cases involving a sealed settlement agreement, there is sufficient information available to the public providing details of a potential public health or safety hazard. As product liability litigators are well aware, protective orders serve to facilitate the timely production of documents. Requiring that a court hearing be conducted before such an order is entered into in every civil case would consume precious judicial resources and further delay litigants’ day in court.