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Financial records in divorce cases remain open

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   May 24, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   May 24, 2006

Financial records in divorce cases remain open

  • A controversial bill that would restrict public access to financial records in divorce cases was put on hold earlier this month following the state high court’s refusal to seal such records.

May 24, 2006  ·   A day after the California Supreme Court declined to hear a case upholding public access to financial information in divorce cases, a lawmaker shelved a bill pushing to keep such information shrouded.

Senate Bill 1015 would have allowed parties to divorce proceedings to automatically redact from public files information such as net worth, annual salary, Social Security numbers, home addresses and bank account balances. Billionaire Ronald Burkle, undergoing a closely watched divorce in the state, had sought to seal financial information in his files, but both Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roy L. Paul and the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles declared unconstitutional a 2004 law allowing such secrecy.

Following the high court’s refusal to hear Burkle’s case, Sen. Kevin Murray, the Democrat who introduced the bill earlier this year, moved it to inactive status, but said it is not dead. Opponents, including women’s advocacy groups, some legislators and First Amendment organizations, argue the bill, if passed, would violate the public’s right to information.

Kelli Sager, an attorney for three press outlets who intervened to access public records in the Burkle case, said the courts have given clear views about Murray’s bill and others like it.

“I would hope the State Assembly has better things to do than pass bills the courts will strike down as unconstitutional,” she said. “A divorce case is just like any other case involving government conduct. There is a very strong public interest in knowing that the process is working the way it is supposed to.”

California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez proposed several changes to Murray’s bill in response to opponents’ concerns. The amendments would, among other things, allow judges the discretion to determine whether to keep financial information from the public after weighing the spouses’ privacy rights against the public’s right to access the records.

But with the bill now inactive, it is unclear whether legislation to that effect will ever advance. Two years ago, the Assembly passed a bill that required judges to seal financial documents in divorce cases upon either spouse’s request.

In the unanimous three-judge appellate court ruling earlier this year, Judge Paul Boland wrote for the appeals court: “The First Amendment provides a right of access to court records in divorce proceedings. While the privacy interest protected by [the law] may override the First Amendment right of access in an appropriate case, the statute is not narrowly tailored to serve overriding privacy interests.”

Murray argued that his bill is needed to curb identity theft and protect individuals’ privacy.

The Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Los Angeles Times intervened in the Burkle divorce case in the Superior Court when the parties attempted to seal the case. The Burkle financial files were released last week, Sager said.

(In re Marriage of Burkle; Media counsel: Kelli L. Sager, Davis Wright Tremaine, Los Angeles)CZ

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