Judge Reverses Himself, Threatening First Amendment and Transparency

A San Antonio judge recently reversed himself, now ruling against public access to open court documents in a case over which he is presiding. After initially determining that information presented in open court should remain public, District Court Judge David Canales retracted his decision and will now allow several items to be sealed from public view.

We are not lawyers; however, our understanding is that there is a legal process to seal information prior to that information being presented in open court. To engage in that process retroactively seems to cross the line of openness – especially considering the wide-ranging implications of this multi-million dollar case.

The parties in the case, Amrock and HouseCanary, provide real estate valuations – similar to Redfin and Zillow – that help inform the home buying market. Their dispute centers on a purported trade secret that HouseCanary alleges Amrock stole.

This trade secrets verdict – which stands to be the largest of the year – could have serious implications for consumers and the real estate industry. Adding to the case’s relevance is the real estate industry’s outsized impact on communities of color.

The First Amendment protects the right to access documents submitted in open court during public trial. This freedom deserves zealous protection, especially when it concerns cases of great import. This point is so critical that the Houston Forward Times participated in a briefing before the Court, and will do so again in appealing Judge Canales’s most recent decision.

We readily acknowledge that some exhibits submitted in court do warrant sealing from the public. However, parties wishing to guard exhibits do not submit them in open court during a public trial and then seek to reclassify them after the fact. This is what HouseCanary did.

As advocates of First Amendment rights and open access, we were encouraged by Judge Canales’s initial decision to retain the public’s accessibility and deny HouseCanary’s motion to seal court documents. However, Judge Canales’s most recent decision to reverse his prior determination and retroactively seal documents from the public is deeply troubling.

We continue to advocate for transparency. Freedom of information is paramount in the judicial system. This holds especially true when the case has significant ramifications for judicial precedent and the future of intellectual property litigation.

Judge Canales’s initial denial of the motion to seal was appropriate and unsurprising. However, his reversal undermines the media and public’s constitutional right to access these exhibits. When appropriate, we will appeal his decision because we believe the public is justly entitled to open court documents. We hope that the court ultimately upholds this right in the Amrock-HouseCanary case.