The Ottumwa Courier

May 14, 2012

An open or shut case?

Court Calls

Judge Lucy Gamon
submitted

OTTUMWA — Americans love their privacy. Government authorities cannot search your house without a warrant. People cannot view your Facebook profile unless they are your “friends.” Many laws protect privacy. But what happens when an individual’s desire for confidentiality collides with the public’s right to know?

Iowa courtrooms are open to the public. Anyone can stroll down to the local courthouse, take a seat and observe democracy in action. Such transparency is crucial in ensuring fairness and due process in court cases. However, there are situations where justice requires confidentiality. For example, Iowa law directs that juvenile hearings may be closed if the judge determines that “the possibility of damage or harm to the child outweighs the public’s interest in having an open hearing.” In other cases, a judge may order that witnesses be sequestered outside the courtroom so that their testimony is not influenced by other evidence being presented.

When it comes to court documents, Iowans have unprecedented access through Iowa Courts On-line. Logging onto www.iowacourts.gov will enable you to find the criminal history of your daughter’s new boyfriend, the titles of the latest documents filed in your cousin’s personal-injury action, the addresses of any local sex offenders, and the amount you owe on that traffic ticket you would like to forget.

While the public can easily discover much information about court proceedings, there are still many documents that are not available: search warrant applications, pending divorce paperwork, some domestic-abuse allegations, records referring to child victims and sealed settlement documents are but a few examples. There are good reasons for keeping these records out of the public domain — disclosure could jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations, humiliate innocent victims or discourage people from seeking relief or settling claims.

Determining the lawful level of transparency in a court case involves balancing the right to individual privacy with the public’s right to know what is happening in its taxpayer-funded courtrooms. While statutes and procedural rules usually direct the result on issues of confidentiality, the lingering questions must be resolved through the use of sound discretion, exercised carefully by judges.

Judge Lucy Gamon, one of the six judges of the 8-A District Court, previously served 17 years as a district associate judge. She has extensive experience handling confidential matters through her years of work with juvenile and mental-health proceedings. She may be reached at lucy.gamon@iowacourts.gov.