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High court finds trial court’s sealing of records improper

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         GEORGIA         Secret Courts         Oct 14, 1999    

High court finds trial court’s sealing of records improper

  • The Georgia Supreme Court found that records were sealed erroneously in a case filed by a woman who says she is the illegitimate child of the late owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

Holding that a court could not seal its records merely because of the “invasion of privacy and resulting embarrassment” that accompanies every lawsuit, the state Supreme Court in Atlanta reversed in mid-September a trial court’s order sealing the records in a case filed by a woman who claims that she is an illegitimate child of Rankin Smith Sr., the late owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team.

The state’s highest court agreed with arguments advanced by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that before a trial court can restrict access to a court record it must hold a hearing and “set forth factual findings that explain how a privacy invasion that may be suffered by a party or parties seeking to seal a record differs from the type of privacy invasion that is suffered by all parties in civil suits.”

The high court held that the trial court did not make the necessary factual findings by merely reciting in its order that “the Court finds that the potential harm to the parties’ privacy clearly outweighs the public interest.” In addition, the high court found that the trial court erred by refusing to hold a hearing on the question of whether the records should be sealed: “The requirement of a hearing held upon reasonable notice is indispensable to the integrity of the process mandated for limiting access to court records, because ‘justice faces its greatest threat when courts dispense it secretly.’ ”

In mid-February 1998, Kimberlee Sullivan sued Sun Trust Bank in state court in Atlanta. She claimed that she was the illegitimate but acknowledged child of Rankin Smith Sr., the former owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team. Sullivan sought to exhume Smith’s body to establish her status as an heir and receive a portion of Smith’s estate. Sun Trust serves as executor of Smith’s estate.

(In re: Motion of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Media Counsel: Tread Davis and Lawrence Slovensky; Atlanta)


© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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