A contract dispute covered recently in The National Law Journal provides another example of how otherwise non-public records can back into the public space through court proceedings. In this instance, the documents that found their way into the public record involved revelations that a law firm client was under investigation by a federal agency and became public in a money dispute between the law firm client and the law firm. The story took on a First Amendment twist when a Washington, DC Superior Court judge issued an order (since vacated) barring The National Law Journal from publishing the name of the agency conducting the investigation. Read the original article about the money dispute (with the reference to the First Amendment angle) here. See the Wall Street Journal Law Blog here for more on the story including a link to a Williams & Connolly amicus brief arguing against the prior restraint. From a public records research standpoint, a couple of things to keep in mind:
1. A lawsuit doesn't have to be as interesting as this one to contain documents or references to documents that help answer the question being pursued by the researcher. What is "interesting" about the records will be dictated by the context in which the researcher is pursuing a question. Methodologically, this argues for a comprehensive look at litigation (filings and attached exhibits) involving all research subjects.
2. In trade disputes, it is not uncommon for portions of the public file to be placed under seal by a judge's order. In many locations, the sealed and public portions of a file are stored together. Keep this in mind when reviewing case files. Poor records storage or segregation is not an excuse for violating an order of the court.