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What is under seal

Laguna Niguel, CA |
Filed under: Criminal defense

What does it mean under seal in the district court? I would like to get a lawyer to look at my case. to me under seal means not Published case, if so what would it take to make it published?

Attorney Answers 3


  1. While the general rule is that documents filed in a court case are public records open to examination, the court may order that certain documents (or even the entire court file) be filed "under seal". Documents filed "under seal" are not available for review by the public.

    "Under seal" has nothing to do with a case being published or unpublished.


  2. I agree with Mr. Chen. The fact that a case is under seal will not stop you or your lawyer from looking at the case. It may take a court order to unseal it, or an order to allow your new attorney to review the case.

    Putting a case under seal protects complainants and some times defendants.

    Although I have answered the question to try to help you, you should consult with a lawyer in your area in person on the matter. In addition, my answer does not establish an attorney-client relationship between us.


  3. If this is in federal District Court, you can go to a lawyer and she or he can look at the entire case through PACER on line. It is possible to download every pleading. It would be a rare pleading that was filed under seal, so the lawyer would be able to get most of the information about the case on line.

    If you meant Superior Court, then you can see a docket in many counties on line although you usually cannot get the actual pleadings. However, the file would be open to the public, including your lawyer. She or he could go to the court clerks office or have a copy service go down and make a copy.

    More practically, if you are hiring a new lawyer, that lawyer can get your entire file from your previous lawyer. So, before going to copy everything, the new lawyer will want to call the previous lawyer.

    The issue of published as opposed to non-published is a matter of whether or not an opinion or order of a court is published in the books (usually those buckram, red, black and tan volumes). California unpublished cases are often reported on line (Westlaw or Lexis) with unoffical citations. Some show up in the the bound volumes of West Reporter system. For federal, a new rule allows citation to anything so the old question of published or nonpublished has become irrelevant. In California (but not in federal as of recently) only published cases can be cited to a court as precedent.

    Now for true sealing (so materials in the file are not available to the public), there has to be a specific showing that the right to public access is outweighed by another more important consideration (usually, the right to a fair trial). Under People v. Jackson, the precedent in California (a case we handled, if I may say so), sealing may be upheld where the court has made findings that meet the specific criterial. It has to be the least restrictive option and supported by findings. This is consistent with federal constitutional requirements. Basically, these days (unless it is a juvenile matter or one involving other statutory confidentiality considerations), it is unlikely that very much in a file would be sealed.

    However, little of this has anything to do with having a lawyer look at your case. Good luck!

    This is not legal advice. In order to get legal advice, you need to retain a lawyer and establish an attorney client relationship. So, talk to your lawyer!

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