Court can seal files, but should offer an explanation
It is not always a deep, dark secret that results in a court file being sealed. Most often it's done to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation. But the surprising thing is how often it's done for mundane, non-legal reasons as an act of convenience or of the involved parties' preference, rather than of law.
No one offered a reason, for example, when a federal court recently sealed a series of letters to a judge from lawyers, regarding the transfer of former state Sen. Robert Mellow's criminal case from Scranton to Philadelphia.
So, it might be nothing more than the Paterno family's desire for privacy that prompted a Centre County judge to take the highly unusual step, in April, of permanently sealing the will of former Penn Sate football coach Joe Paterno, which normally would be a public document.
Not only did the court not reveal whether that is the case, however, it sealed the motion to seal, the judge's reason for doing so and, so far, it has not even revealed the name of the judge who made that decision.
Many people would prefer, of course, that their legal proceedings be shielded from public view. But almost all court documents inherently are public records because the issue is not simply the details of any particular case, but the accountability of the court itself.
That is so in the Paterno case. The issue isn't simply the contents of the will, but the public accountability of the court. No one argues that the judge has the power to seal a file, but that does not exempt the court from public accountability for it.
Inevitably, the seal has led to speculation that closing the file somehow had something to do with the Jerry Sandusky case. The criminal trial of Mr. Sandusky, a former coach under Mr. Paterno, has begun in the same courthouse where the will file was sealed.
It's more likely that closing the file simply complied with a request for privacy. Regardless, the file should be open like any other, or the court should explain its special status.