The Hon. J. Owen Forrester, Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, recently announced a new case management procedure that will limit the parties from consenting to blanket protective orders to protect the confidentiality of documents in civil cases. Such orders typically permit the parties to designate documents as "confidential" or "attorney's eyes only" without the necessity of court review or intervention. These orders are fairly common in complex business cases. Judge Forrester's procedure requires that he review a document before it is designated confidential.
Judge Forrester explained the adoption of the procedure to be based on his view that the courts should generally be open to the public. It remains to be seen whether other judges in the Northern District of Georgia or other courts will adopt Judge Forrester's procedure. However, Judge Forrester is very respected, so it would not be surprising to see his view gain favor with other judges.
If Judge Forrester's procedure becomes more widespread, there may be some interesting consequences. This past week, I participated in an interesting panel discussion on arbitration before the Atlanta Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. Another panelist suggested that Judge Forrester's procedure might lead to an increased use of arbitration because arbitration procedures are typically confidential. In addition, because arbitration is a creature of contract, it would seem likely that any agreement by the parties on discovery and confidentiality would be followed by the arbitrators.
Another possibility is that the procedure will foster an even greater use of mediation, or will perhaps result in mediation being used earlier in the process. Mediation is by its nature an extremely confidential process. I have previously written about why this characteristic makes mediation particularly useful in cases involving intellectual property, including trade secrets.
As for litigation, Judge Forrester's procedure will definitely require the parties to take a more detailed and focused look at confidential information that is the subject of discovery. In some cases -- those where there really is very little confidential at issue -- Judge Forrester's procedure might streamline things because the parties will simply produce the information. On the other hand, in cases where confidentiality is truly in issue, the very careful and selective review and analysis required, along with possible resulting motions practice, may slow things down and will probably result in increased expense.
The only sure thing is that Judge Forrester's procedure will require parties and their counsel to think carefully through their options before filing suit or in conducting discovery.