An important legal battle here in Texas is continuing to weave its way up through the courts and could eventually land a significant national blow to public access that has been historically secured by the First Amendment. The case, which also has major implications for American intellectual property law, was heard April 29 by a panel of three judges from the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals.
After a Bexar County jury reached a $706.2 million verdict last year in the trade secret case regarding real estate valuation data and modeling, the recipient of that award, HouseCanary, began pursuing unprecedented efforts to seal public trial exhibits which would provide valuable insight into this historic case.
The larger case and verdict will be appealed at a later date. But the recent hearing raised the important question of whether such public trial exhibits can or should be sealed.
In full disclosure, we at the Houston Forward Times (HFT) took a stand editorially as well as in court filings to maintain the public’s right to see into developments that could be industry-shaping. Our position is that open records are always best – with few exceptions.
HFT became a party to the case to help preserve the fundamental rights the First Amendment offers, such as transparency into our government. This includes access to public trial documents, something the courts have repeatedly reaffirmed for years.
In this case, the exhibits in question have already been publicly revealed in court. At the time, HouseCanary did not object to this. But now, HouseCanary is oddly trying to prevent the public from seeing this information. If allowing the public to see it now violates HouseCanary’s trade secrets, why didn’t HouseCanary object in the first instance to this material being distributed in open court?
The principles involved in this case are crucial to civil rights cases. One reason is that historically, sealed records have not played to the advantage of victims of discrimination and the truly disadvantaged. Imagine if the exhibits in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education anti-segregation case had been sealed. The general public would never know the extent of the historic doll study by private psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, that served as a key exhibit in the case and is now a public testament to the psychological impact of race discrimination.
Like a roller coaster, the Housecanary case has taken a number of turns weaving back and forth between adhering to the protections of the public’s right to know and arguments to conceal the exhibit. Ultimately, the court granted public access Nov. 30. Now HouseCanary is fighting vehemently to shut the public out in the case that will no doubt end up in the Texas Supreme Court.
If these public trial documents are allowed to become forever sealed, a disturbing legal precedent will have been established that reduces accountability into our government system, restricts people’s freedom to information, and impedes the press’s ability to carry out its essential function.
Therefore, we reassert our conviction that the attempts to seal public information challenges these elements of a free society. The court should uphold longstanding commitments to transparency and treat these trial exhibits as they are – public information.