Sealing Court Records Procedure in Harris County, Texas

Standard for Sealing Records

Under Texas law, court records are generally open to the public and access to them is guaranteed to all attorneys in any court. In re The Dallas Morning News, Inc., 10 S.W.3d 298, 301 (Tex. 1999) (concurring opinion); Davenport v. Garcia, 834 S.W.2d 4, 23 (Tex. 1992) (orig. proceeding); see Tex. R. Civ. P. 76a(1) “court records, as defined in this rule, are presumed to be open to the general public and may be sealed only upon a showing of... a specific, serious and substantial interest which clearly outweighs... (1) this presumption of openness; (2) any probable adverse effect that sealing will have upon the general public health or safety,... [and] no less restrictive means than sealing records will adequately and effectively protect the specific interest asserted.”

What are Court Records?

Before a court can order the sealing of records, however, the court must first determine whether the materials sought to be sealed are “court records.” General Tire, Inc. v. Kepple, 970 S.W.2d 520, 524 (Tex. 1998); BP Products North America, Inc. v. Houston Chronicle Pub. Co., 263 S.W.3d 31 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, no pet.). “Court records” are defined by Rule 76a(2)(a) of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure as including “all documents of any nature filed in connection with any matter before any civil court, except: (1) documents filed with a court in camera, solely for the purpose of obtaining a ruling on the discoverability of such documents; (2) documents in court files to which access is otherwise restricted by law; and (3) documents filed in an action originally arising under the Family Code. Tex. R. Civ. P. 76a(2)(a) (emphasis added).

Notice Requirement

Court records may be sealed only upon a party's written motion, which shall be open to public inspection. Tex. R. Civ. P. 76a(3). The motion to seal documents should include a background of the case, and should argue why the specific documents requested to be sealed outweigh the presumption of openness, any probable adverse effect the sealing would have on the general public health or safety, and that no less restrictive means than sealing is adequate.

Next, the attorney should request a hearing date from the court in which the case is pending. This date should give the attorney enough time to file all the appropriate documents and get the notice posted. Because the hearing cannot take place less than 14 days after the motion is filed and notice is posted, the attorney should get a hearing date approximately 1 ½ to 2 months in advance and work backwards, making sure all documents are filed and notice posted with the 14 day required period intact.

In Harris County, the next step is to request a citation from the court using the civil process request form found on the Harris County District Clerk Website. The type of instrument to be served should be “Protective Order (Civil Code)” and the Service should be issued upon “All Interested Parties”. Once the citation is ready, the citation must be taken to the Harris County Constable's Office, Attn: Constable Alan Rosen, located at 1302 Preston, Suite 301, Houston, TX 77002, along with a check for $75.00 and the Public Notice of Motion to Seal Records for proper posting by the Constable. This is where notices for meetings of county governmental bodies are required to be posted.

Pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 76a(3), the Public Notice of Motion to Seal Records must state: that a hearing will be held in open court on a motion to seal court records in the specific case; that any person may intervene and be heard concerning the sealing of court records; the specific time and place of the hearing; the style and number of the case; a brief but specific description of both the nature of the case and the records which are sought to be sealed; and the identity of the movant. Immediately thereafter, the movant shall file a verified copy of the posted notice with the clerk of the court in which the case is pending and with the clerk of the Supreme Court of Texas.

Sealing Court Records Hearing

A hearing, open to the public, on a motion to seal records shall be held in open court as soon as practicable, but not less than fourteen days after the motion is filed and notice is posted. Any party may participate in the hearing. Tex. R. Civ. P. 76a(4).

Conclusion

In order to seal court records, an attorney must comply with all the rules pursuant to Texas Rule of Procedure 76a before a Judge will grant an order on the motion to seal court records. Failure to comply could lead to private or sensitive documents becoming available through the court for anyone to see.

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