A request to unseal state Rep. Andy Patrick's divorce case won't be heard in Beaufort County Family Court until next month, a judge said Thursday. Meanwhile, Patrick's attorney requested a gag order aimed at limiting information that could be aired about the case.
The request for a gag order and the motion to unseal will be considered at a hearing on Feb. 19, Family Court Judge Timothy H. Pogue ruled.
The request to unseal Patrick's case was not filed in time for Thursday's hearing between Patrick and his wife, Amee Patrick. The separated couple were in court to discuss custody and child support, among other things, in their ongoing divorce.
Patrick, whose financial troubles have been disclosed in court documents, dropped out of the state superintendent of education race on Tuesday and said he will not seek re-election to the state House of Representatives after his term ends later this year.
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The motion to unseal his divorce case was filed Jan. 20 by attorney Jay Bender of Columbia, who is representing The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The newspapers seek to review the documents in the case file because they could reflect on Patrick's service as an elected official.
South Carolina law allows both parties in a court case 10 days notice before a motion can be heard. The parties could have decided to waive the notice rule, but Patrick's attorney, state. Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Spartanburg, wanted to adhere to it, according to Bender. Bender was on the phone with the Patricks' attorneys and Judge during a pre-hearing discussion Thursday, held in Pogue's chambers.
Pogue is a visiting judge from Marion, S.C.
Brannon not only opposed consideration of the newspapers' request to open the file, he also asked the judge to issue a gag order, which would prevent people involved in the case from speaking publicly about it.
"Nobody's personal business needs to be fought in the press," Brannon said after the hearing. " . . . This should be done in private, and that's what family courts are for."
Patrick's announcement to end his campaign came two days after a story published by the Packet and Gazette detailed several incidents -- most involving the way Patrick handled financial affairs -- that raised questions about his integrity.
Documents from the lawmaker's divorce court proceedings already obtained by the newspapers showed a legislator who spent considerably more than he earned and was living outside his district. It also shed light on Patrick's dealings with several people who say he hasn't repaid money he owes them.
On Tuesday, Andy Patrick called the allegations "false, misleading and out-of-context."
"This is a private matter that is playing itself out in public only because I'm a public official," he said in a phone interview.
At Thursday's hearing, Andy Patrick's attorney told the judge that both the Patricks were broke: "There simply is no money between these parties," Brannon said.
The divorce case was sealed by Family Court Judge Peter Fuge during a July 2013 hearing at the request of Patrick's lawyer and with the consent of a lawyer then representing Amee Patrick.
Court rules state in detail the steps lawyers and judges must go through before a file can be sealed, but the rules weren't followed by Judge Fuge or the lawyers.
Lawyers are supposed to submit a request to judges identifying "with specificity" the documents they want sealed, "state the reasons why sealing is necessary" and "satisfy the court that the balance of public and private interests favors sealing the documents," according to court rules.
Judges must then weigh those issues -- and "why the public interest ... is best served by sealing the documents." The judge's decision should "set forth with specificity the reasons" for sealing a case, the rules say.
Fuge's order, issued July 18, 2013, doesn't explain his reasoning. It says only that "This case file shall be sealed by the clerk of court and no one except her staff or a Family Court Judge shall open this file. If opened, it shall immediately be resealed."
Bender, the attorney representing the newspapers, said S.C. Supreme Court case precedent should allow the files to be unsealed.
"I think the law is very much in favor of opening in this case," he said. "There are limited exceptions for things like children and their welfare. But otherwise the courts have been clear."
Brannon, Patrick's lawyer, has said he wanted the file sealed "so I could protect my client."
Lauren Martel, Amee Patrick's lawyer, has said she and her client support the newspapers' request to open the file.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.