State Statutes Mandating Sealing of Childhood Sexual Abuse Complaints Don’t Apply in Federal Court
Haynes v. Haggerty, decided Tuesday by Judge Christina Reiss (D. Vt.), involves a lawsuit over allegedly admitted sexual abuse nearly 50 years ago (1971-73), made possible by Vermont’s repeal of the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims. The lawsuit was dismissed on res judicata grounds, because plaintiff had unsuccessfully sued defendant before in Virginia court.
But after that, Judge Reiss turned to a question that particularly interests me, and that I had indeed brought up in Giroux v. Foley, a similar case that is also pending in her courtroom: Should a state statute mandating sealing of certain court documents apply when the case is removed to federal court? As I wrote last November, a Vermont statute (12 Vt. Stats. Ann. § 522) provides that key documents and hearings in lawsuits over “childhood sexual abuse”—alleged abuse that happened when the plaintiff was under 18—would be either temporarily or permanently sealed:
If a complaint is filed alleging an act of childhood sexual abuse, the complaint shall immediately be sealed by the clerk of the court.
The complaint shall remain sealed until the answer is served or, if the defendant files a motion to dismiss …, until the court rules on that motion.
If the complaint is dismissed, the complaint and any related papers or pleadings shall remain sealed.
Any hearing held in connection with the motion to dismiss shall be in camera.
This statute is very much an exception; the normal rule is that civil lawsuits are decided in open court, with openly filed papers, so that the public can monitor what the courts are doing. In the words of Justice Holmes writing in 1884,
It is desirable that the trial of [civil] causes should take place under the public eye, not because the controversies of one citizen with another are of public concern, but because it is of the highest moment that those who administer justice should always act under the sense of public responsibility, and that every citizen should be able to satisfy himself with his own eyes as to the mode in which a public duty is performed.
Indeed, most courts conclude that this r
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