In a case that the Houston Forward has played close attention to and even engaged as a party, the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio issued a ruling on July 10 to reverse a lower court’s decision to seal essential court documents that were publicly presented in a record-breaking trade secrets case.
HouseCanary, a Silicon Valley company, won a verdict in March 2018 after accusing a company to which it licensed technology of misappropriating purported trade secrets related to real estate data and models. After winning the judgment, HouseCanary sought to exploit the legal system to pull a veil over public court documents that could offer insight into the merit of its jury award.
The Fourth Court of Appeals’ decision grants access to trial documents that were filed, presented, and discussed in open court. Courts have been guided by the longstanding principle that such documents shall remain available to the public. The trial court had bucked this sensible standard, which is essential to upholding accountability in our government. We believe the appeals court was correct to reverse this decision.
The Fourth Court found that the trial court “abused its discretion” when it “ordered exhibits sealed without application” of the parties’ mutually agreed upon procedure for sealing documents. The trial court’s abuse of discretion would have granted HouseCanary special treatment as a reward for not adhering to established guidelines.
HouseCanary, which waited six weeks after the trial’s conclusion to file a motion to seal the documents, relied on the claim that the exhibits contain its “most sensitive information.” We fully expect that HouseCanary will exercise all of its legal options – which is certainly their right – and appeal this court’s decision to the Texas Supreme Court. Once that effort is exhausted, and should the Supreme Court uphold the Appellate Court’s ruling, the public will finally have the opportunity to see whether this information is worth the punitive damages the jury court awarded.
Whenever government issues decisions that exacerbate inequality in disadvantaged communities, they are often made behind closed doors and with little to no public insight. Revoking citizens’ right to access public documents would only serve to further shut people out of the decision-making process of our officials.
This concern led to the Houston Forward Times becoming a party to the sealing motion. With few exceptions, open access is best. When our government issues decisions that could shake up industries and alter established principles, such as the nature of intellectual property protections, the public deserves the ability to evaluate those decisions. This recent ruling is a victory for the public access that the First Amendment guarantees.