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Judge voids sealing order in bankruptcy case

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Judge voids sealing order in bankruptcy case 07/14/97 MARYLAND--In early June, a federal bankruptcy judge in Baltimore vacated a consensual…

Judge voids sealing order in bankruptcy case

07/14/97

MARYLAND–In early June, a federal bankruptcy judge in Baltimore vacated a consensual protective order sealing documents that have been subpoenaed in connection with a bankruptcy proceeding involving J. Fife Symington, the governor of Arizona. The court granted the media’s motion to intervene in the bankruptcy proceeding, stating that the press “has standing to petition for access to materials closed to public view by a protective order.”

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge James Schneider held that the press and public have a First Amendment right to attend proceedings and to view documents in a “threshold inquiry” into Symington’s assets, known as a Rule 2004 examination.

The court observed that the public’s First Amendment right of access attaches to Rule 2004 examinations because such proceedings are “historically public proceedings and because public access plays a significant role in the bankruptcy process.”

He wrote that “the overriding public interest” in learning the facts about criminal misconduct allegedly committed by a public official constitutes “extraordinary circumstances” that outweigh a debtor’s interest in preserving the confidentiality of personal financial records.

The Arizona Republic, The Phoenix Gazette and KTVK-TV moved to intervene in the action, asserting that the protective order constituted an overbroad prior restraint that violated the First Amendment.

Symington filed for voluntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Phoenix in September 1995. The Bank of Arizona filed a motion in Phoenix, which was considered by the Baltimore court, seeking documents from Martha Symington, the governor’s mother, who was a Maryland resident before her death earlier this year. (In Re: J. Fife Symington III; Media Counsel: John Scaldara; Baltimore)