Clark County, Nevada
Free access to civil court proceedings is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Its importance cannot be overstated.
State and federal courts, including Nevada’s Supreme Court, recognize that public access to court proceedings serves vital public policy interests, including, serving as a check on corruption, educating the public about the judicial process, promoting informed discussion of government affairs, and enhancing the performance of the judge, the lawyers and all involved.
As former Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta wrote earlier this year regarding the Supreme Court’s rules on sealing civil records, “the cornerstones of an effective, functioning judicial system are openness and transparency. Safeguarding these cornerstones requires public access not only to the judicial proceedings but also to judicial records and documents.”
At least one lawyer in Nevada, however, Jennifer Abrams, appears to be “seal happy” when it comes to trying to seal her cases. She appears to have sealed many of her cases in the past few years, including filing a petition to seal in at least four cases just this past week, on 11/3/2016!
It also appears, however, that at least one of her cases, and perhaps more, may have been sealed to protect her own reputation, rather than to serve a compelling client privacy or safety interest.
Veterans In Politics International (VIPI) recently released a video of Abrams bullying Judge Jennifer Elliot during a family court hearing in a case entitled Saiter v. Saiter, Case No. D-15-521372-D.
Nevada Attorney attacks a Clark County Family Court Judge in Open Court
In response to our article, Abrams sought and obtained a court order from Judge Elliott which does not name VIPI, but which purports to apply to the entirety of the general population. VIPI, however, was served with the Order. The document orders all videos of Abrams’ September 29, 2016 judicial browbeating to be taken off the internet.
District Court Judge Bullied by Family Attorney Jennifer Abrams
The Order further prohibits anyone from “publishing, displaying, showing or making public any portion of these case proceedings.” The order goes on to state that “nothing from the case at bar shall be disseminated or published and that any such publication or posting by anyone or any entity shall be immediately removed.”
While the order claims in a conclusory fashion to be “in the best interests of the children,” nothing in the order explains why. Indeed, the September 29, 2016 video of the proceedings that is on the internet focuses on Abrams’s disrespectful exchange with the judge, and does not materially involve the children in the case.
Moreover, while the Court Order is broadly stated and purports to prohibit the public viewing or dissemination of “any portion of these case proceedings,” such blanket prohibition on public access to the entire case is specifically disallowed by law.
Entire cases cannot be sealed. Moreover, even if a judge wants to seal part of the case, the judge must specifically justify such sealing and must seal only the minimum portion necessary to protect a “compelling privacy or safety interest.”
The issue of open proceedings is so important that in 2008 the Review Journal reported the Nevada Supreme Court convened a special task force to address the issue of over-sealing.
Standards for sealing civil cases tougher
The Supreme Court thereafter enacted rules requiring judges to specify in writing why sealing a record or redacting a portion of it is justified. (Supreme Court Rules, Part VII, Rule 3.) Judges must identify “compelling privacy or safety interests that outweigh the public interest in access to the court record.”
This requirement applies even when a party in a family law case tries to seal a case under NRS 125.110, the statute on which Abrams seems to routinely rely. This statute provides that certain evidence in a divorce case, such as records, exhibits, and transcripts of particular testimony, may be deemed “private” and sealed upon request of one of the parties. However, the Court must justify why these records have to be sealed, and cannot seal the entire case – complaints, pleadings and other documents must remain public.
In the 2009 case of Johansen v. District Court, the Nevada Supreme Court specifically held that broad unsupported orders sealing documents in divorce cases are subject to reversal given the important public policies involved.
The Court stated:
“We conclude that the district court was obligated to maintain the divorce proceedings’ public status under NRS 125.110 and manifestly abused any discretion it possessed when it sealed the entire case file. We further conclude that the district court abused its discretion when it issued an overly broad gag order sua sponte, without giving notice or a meaningful opportunity to be heard, without making any factual findings with respect to the need for such an order in light of any clear and present danger or threat of serious and imminent harm to a protected interest, and without examining the existence of any alternative means by which to accomplish this purpose. Gag orders must be narrowly drawn if no less restrictive means are available; they may be entered only when there exists a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice. This was certainly not the case here.”
Johanson v. Dist. Ct., 182 P. 3d 94 – Nev: Supreme Court 2008
In the Saiter case, no notice was given to the general public for a hearing before the Order was issued, there was no opportunity for the public to be heard, no specific findings were made in the Order, and the Order was not drafted narrowly.
Indeed, it was drafted in the broadest possible terms to effectively seal the entire case! It is also questionable whether Judge Elliott had jurisdiction to issue the Order against the general public, who was not before her in court.
This all raises the question: What basis and justifications were given in the other cases which Abrams sought to seal?
Indeed, after issuing our initial story about Abrams’ behavior in the Saiter case, we were contacted by judges, attorneys and litigants eager to share similar battle-worn experiences with Jennifer Abrams.
Sources indicate that when Abrams was asked in one case by Judge Gerald Hardcastle whether she understood his order, she replied that she only understood that the judge intended to bend over backwards for her opposing counsel.
In another case, Northern Nevada Judge Jack Ames reportedly stood up and walked off the bench after a disrespectful tirade from Jennifer Abrams.
So, who is to blame here?
Of course Jennifer Abrams should be responsible and accountable for her own actions.
But, what judge allows a lawyer to bully her in court and then gets her to issue an overbroad, unsubstantiated order to seal and hide the lawyer’s actions?
Shouldn’t we expect more from our judges in controlling their courtrooms, controlling their cases, issuing orders in compliance with the law, and protecting the people against over-zealous, disrespectful lawyers who obstruct the judicial process and seek to stop the public from having access to otherwise public documents?
Surely, we should have this minimum expectation. Even in Nevada.