High court repeals recent ethics panel amendments regarding confidentiality of court documents

By Asia Mayfield | Sep 10, 2018

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Supreme Court repealed two recent amendments to the body of rules of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), the state’s top judicial disciplinary agency. 

The high court justices, in its Aug. 30 opinion, found that the agency overstepped its bounds by deeming certain court filings to be confidential.  

Amendments to rules 6 and 20 of the of the JQC were repealed. The amendments granted the agency’s investigative panel the authority to designate court filings as confidential. According to the Florida justices, the rules were “beyond the commission’s authority under the Florida Constitution.” 

The commision defended itself by claiming that it was trying to “avoid disclosure of medical and personal information that is necessary to provide to (this) court in cases involving disability or illness.” That’s why it gave panels under its control permission to designate court filings as confidential.  

The jigh court noted that it doesn’t doubt the sincerity of the commission’s attempt. However, it further notes that the contested confidentiality amendments have to be repealed because the commission lacks the constitutional authority needed to implement them. Article V, section 2(a) of the state Constitution awards the Supreme Court the exclusive right to “adopt rules for the practice and procedure in all courts.” There is nothing in the Florida Constitution that gives the commission the authority to label court filings confidential.   

“Thus,” the justices wrote, “the only filings in a JQC proceeding in this court that can be designated and maintained as confidential are those determined to be confidential ... by this court. A filing in this or any other state court is not confidential ... and cannot be otherwise ‘designated’ confidential simply because it contains sensitive personal information.” 

The commission argued that a 1992 provision that states “records presently deemed to be confidential by ... the rules of the Judicial Qualifications Commission,” authorizes it to enact new confidentiality amendments. 

The court disagreed, noting that the rule “preserves the effectiveness of rules of court exempting certain judicial branch records from public access as of the date this section was adopted," but it doesn't grant the commission the authority to implement new rules. 

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