A Michigan family court judge yesterday denied a motion to seal records in a high-profile civil lawsuit without hearing arguments from the attorney representing several local media organizations that objected to the defendant’s request for secrecy.
Oakland County Circuit Judge Cheryl A. Matthews said during a hearing that she had no intention of shielding from public view court documents alleging that a state judge neglected and failed to support his two children. MLive Media Group — which includes The Flint Journal, MLive.com Flint and MLive.com Detroit — and WXYZ Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in Detroit, filed an opposition to Judge Archie Hayman’s request to seal the case file, which contains “ugly” allegations lodged by plaintiff-attorney Denise Ketchmark, Detroit media attorney James E. Stewart, who represented the media groups, said in an interview.
But despite the nature of the suit — in fact, because of the “public’s justifiable interest in [the] litigation and in the public official and practicing attorney who are enmeshed in it” — such pervasive secrecy infringes the First Amendment-based right of public access to judicial documents, according to the brief Stewart filed in support of the media groups’ opposition.
Under this jurisprudence, “suppression to protect reputations is specifically not justified,” and, given the strong presumption in favor of open court records, a party’s justification for sealing “must be a weighty one,” the brief stated.
In additional to federal constitutional law, Michigan law makes clear that “sealed court files are to be the exception and that court files may only be sealed from the public in extreme situations,” according to the brief.
Matthews agreed: “I can’t imagine a situation in which I would [seal the records],” according to a report by MLive.com Flint.
Although Stewart said he was prepared to present his arguments to the judge during the hearing, she said she did not need to hear them, noting the strong public interest in litigation involving a public official.
Stewart said the case is particularly newsworthy because Hayman — with whom Ketchmark has been having an affair for the past 19 years, according to her complaint — “publicly, has been quite strong about the need for fathers, especially in African-American communities, to be strong father figures. He is not easy on people who don’t pay their child support.”
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Sealing the trial record