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Judge strikes down law sealing entire divorce files

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    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Secret Courts         March 2, 2005    

Judge strikes down law sealing entire divorce files

  • Court rules divorce records law is not narrowly tailored to protect sensitive financial data.

March 2, 2005 — A new California law allowing entire divorce records to be sealed if they contain certain financial information violates the First Amendment, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Monday.

Judge Roy L. Paul, who was asked to seal almost 20 documents in the highly publicized divorce case of billionaire investor Ronald W. Burkle, invalidated the law because it is not narrowly tailored to protect sensitive financial data and it “unduly burdens” the public’s right of access to civil court proceedings.

“The court concludes the statute is overbroad because it mandates sealing entire pleadings to protect a limited class of specified material,” Paul wrote.

Section 2024.6 of California’s Family Code, which took effect in June, requires a court to seal upon request any divorce-related document that lists a person’s financial assets and liabilities and “provides the location or identifying information” about such assets and liabilities.

“What is so dangerous about this law is it would allow people to just stick a piece of financial information in a footnote, and ask the court to seal the entire document,” attorney Susan Seager, who intervened in the case on behalf of the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said in a telephone interview. “In that way someone could seal every single pleading that was filed in a divorce case.”

Burkle had asked the court in December to seal certain documents in his divorce file that contained financial asset information and their location, “which Mr. Burkle interpreted to mean street address,” Seager said. He also asked the court to seal the transcript of his divorce trial and all the trial exhibits, she said, and even asked the state Court of Appeal to seal documents filed by his wife seeking interlocutory review.

“A big chunk of the case was totally sealed off from the public because of this one statute,” Seager said.

The judge would have had to grant Burkle’s request if the Times and AP had not asked to intervene, Paul wrote.

Although Paul found that the state has a “compelling” interest in protecting someone’s financial data, which must be disclosed in divorce documents, protection “of the competing right of public access requires some discretion on a case-by-case basis before entire pleadings are sealed on behalf of some small portion within them.” He also noted “there is no compelling state interest in streamlining the process to the point that the court is totally divested of discretion in all instances.”

This is the first high-profile case to challenge the new law, which was originally crafted to shield sensitive data such as bank account and Social Security numbers, according to Seager. Such information can be redacted without sealing entire documents, she said.

“Divorce courts should not be placed in a separate category of secrecy,” Seager said. “It’s just as important that the public make sure the courts are administering the law fairly and correctly in divorce proceedings as any other civil proceeding.

“It’s about transparency and fairness,” she said.

Ronald Burkle’s attorney, Patricia Glaser, told the AP that they would probably appeal Paul’s decision.

(Burkle v. Burkle, Media Counsel: Susan Seager, Davis Wright Tremaine, Los Angeles)KK

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© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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