Congress has been busy and there is no sign it intends to slow down just because it is summer.

In two weeks, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will hold a hearing entitled, “Medical Devices: Are Current Regulations Doing Enough for Patients.” The hearing will be on June 18th at 9:30 a.m. in 2322 Rayburn House Office Building and access to the webcast and witness list should be available from this page once available. Information about this subcommittee’s May 12th hearing about medical device preemption is in this prior post.

Earlier this week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill to curtail the discretion of federal judges in issuing litigation protective orders under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c ) and limiting the use of confidentiality provisions in litigation settlement agreements subject to court approval or filed with the court. Proponents of this bill, the “Sunshine in Litigation Act of 2009”, H.R. 1508, suggest that it is needed to help keep defendants in civil litigation from “hiding” health and safety hazards.

As the Supreme Court recognized in Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 33 (1984), discovery materials are not public components of a civil trial. Until information produced in discovery is filed with the court or introduced into evidence for determination of a merits issue (such as on a motion for summary judgment or at trial), protective orders routinely protect the confidential and proprietary information of parties to civil litigation.

Testimony by the Hon. Mark R. Kravitz of the District of Connecticut, on behalf of the Conference’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure and its Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, opposed the bill on the ground that it effectively amends the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure outside the rulemaking process, contrary to the Rules Enabling Act (28 U.S.C. §§ 2071-2077). He testified that the bill is not needed (emphasis added):

In 1994, the Rules Committees asked the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) to do an empirical study on whether discovery protective orders were operating to keep information about public safety or health hazards from the public. The FJC completed the study in April 1996. . . . The FJC study showed that discovery protective orders were requested in only about 6% of the approximately 220,000 civil cases filed in federal courts in that time period. Most of the requests are made by motion. Courts carefully review these motions and deny or modify them in a substantial proportion. Less than one-quarter of the requests are made by party stipulations and the courts usually accept them. In most civil cases in which discovery protective orders were entered, the empirical study showed that the orders did not impact public safety or health. . . . The empirical data showed no evidence that protective orders create any significant problem of concealing information about public hazards.
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Even when a protective order is entered, it usually does not result in the sealing of all, or even many, documents or information submitted to the court. Case law shows that courts are rightly protective of the public’s right to gain access to information and documents submitted to the courts.
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Requiring courts to review discovery information to make public health and safety determinations in every request for a protective order, no matter how irrelevant to public health or safety, will burden judges, further delay pretrial discovery and inevitably increase the cost of civil litigation in federal courts.