It's not easy for any judge in South Carolina to go against the wishes of a state lawmaker.
Members of the legislature appoint all state judges from the state Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals to the Circuit Court to the Family Court.
But that's just what Family Court Judge Vicki Snelgrove dared to do recently, unsealing Rep. Andy Patrick's divorce case and denying a gag order request -- made by yet another lawmaker and Patrick's attorney, Rep. Doug Brannon.
The motion to unseal the case was brought by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on the premise that, under state court rules, the file should have never been sealed in the first place. Snelgrove agreed that procedure was not followed by Beaufort County Family Court Judge Peter Fuge when he sealed the case in July.
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Long-standing rules require lawyers to submit a request to judges, identifying "with specificity" the documents they want sealed, to give the reasons why the sealing is necessary and to "satisfy the court that the balance of public and private interests favors sealing the documents." Then, judges decide if "the public interest ... is best served by sealing the documents," and they must list the reasons why.
But all too often, busy judges seal court records simply because both sides request it. And while that protects both sides from the revelation of embarrassing accusations, it also erodes the transparency of our judicial system. Citizens are denied the chance to evaluate the type of evidence that convinced a judge and to determine whether a court ruling is fair.
In order to hold our courts accountable, we must have access to information, even if that information makes those involved in lawsuits turn shades of red.
Certainly South Carolina is not alone in its unwarranted sealing of cases. In 2010, for example, The Seattle Times launched an investigation of rampant sealing of files. The secrecy kept the public from knowing about wrongdoing and alleged negligence by schools, hospitals, lawyers, churches, state agencies and manufacturers, the investigation revealed. And yes, hundreds of divorce files had been sealed in their entirety too.
The convenient sealing of court records is particularly troubling when it involves public officials. In these instances, the public stomachs a one-two punch of denied access to information about their courts and denied information about their elected officials' conduct. The result: voters are hindered in their ability to decide whether a public official deserves another term in their post or a shot at a higher office.
In Patrick's case, his attorney also argued that a gag order was justified to prevent sensitive information in government documents related to the divorce case from being aired. Some documents concern national security matters, Brannon claimed.
We applaud Snelgrove for not giving credence to the flimsy, but convenient argument. As Snelgrove pointed out, if government agencies were concerned about damage from publicity about the documents, they would have appeared in court to argue the case remain sealed.
Ultimately, there may be little in the file that is not already known because of previous comments and documents provided by Patrick's wife and others near the case.
But the unsealing speaks to the larger point that a democracy requires transparency.
It should take more than a gentlemen's agreement to shroud information from the public.