Parts of more than 2,000 court cases in Oklahoma were sealed between 2003 and 2007, including divorce documents, wrongful death settlements and name changes, according to a sweeping account of court secrecy by the Tulsa World.
District Judge Gordon McAllister, who sealed cases and documents more often than any other judge in Tulsa County, told the newspaper, "I try to discourage attorneys if the only purpose is trying to keep it from the media. . . . If there is not a good reason, I try to talk them out of it. I tell attorneys that if you want it sealed, it will be a red flag for the press."
McAllister said he does "factor in the public’s right to know," but Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, didn’t seem to think enough is being done on that count: "If you want privacy," Thomas told the World, "settle your affairs in private."
"It gives the appearance that justice is for sale in Oklahoma, like it was 50 years ago," Thomas said. "We should avoid that appearance at all cost," and sealing court records should be "an extreme rarity."
The World said it asked 77 court clerks in Oklahoma for data on records and cases sealed by judicial order in recent years. Only three counties came back with lists of case numbers.
Beyond the total tabulation, newspaper found police reports were among 66 documents sealed in a single child molestation case that had been settled after the jury awarded actual damages. World reporter Ginnie Graham identified judges who had shuttered an unusually high number of cases or documents, and spoke with several of them about why.
One judge told the newspaper he’s getting more requests for secrecy as fears of identity theft spread, in cases where the paperwork contains personal information. Joey Senat, a past president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, called that argument a "red herring" and pointed out the potential public interest in learning about any number of the 45 or so cases sealed in Tulsa naming doctors, hospitals or insurance companies.
"If someone is suing for medical malpractice, why don’t we see what has been closed?" Senat told the World. "Sometimes you have to give up privacy for the good of everybody."