Would you pay the mortgage on a home that you were not allowed to live in? Review a book you were banned from reading? Recommend a restaurant at which the owner locked the doors every time he saw you coming?
Chances are you would not. Access to a thing is necessary in order to evaluate it.
Unfortunately, some judges and members of at least one public board recently denied access to something far more important than any book or restaurant -- the inner workings of our courts and government.
The losers in this deal are taxpayers, who pay for the courts, state boards, commissions and agencies, but are sometimes being denied the necessary level of access to evaluate them and safeguard against abuses. Lack of access and information leads to lack of accountability. And that could result in a court process and state government that are unjust.
While situations do arise in which documents should legitimately be sealed and access to court proceedings and public meetings limited (such as to protect proprietary information that is truly proprietary) those instances are rare. And to do that, judges and lawyers are required to follow specific procedures.
Unfortunately, several recent high-profile cases in Beaufort County have revealed that the public is sometimes getting shut out for no good reason. Judges have sealed documents and bypassed rules that require them to consider the public's interest in the documents. Convenience and the desire to avoid interaction with the media has sometimes taken priority over the public's right to know.
The most recent example is the sealing of a controversial transcript from a 2013 S.C. Real Estate Commission by two courts and a state regulatory official.
The transcript shed light on Coral Resorts, a Hilton Head Island timeshare company that failed to pay annual fees required by the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The lapsed payments are likely to play a key role in about two dozen lawsuits filed by owners of Coral Resorts timeshares.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette received the transcript from an unknown, anonymous source and published it, believing it is a public document that the public has a right to see it. Far more egregious than the company's failure to pay fees are the efforts to keep the transcript out of the public's hands and the subsequent consent given by judges and the S.C. Real Estate Commission, the very officials who should be advocates for the public. The rulings also run counter to the state constitution and court rules that seek to keep the courts open to the public.
And it begs the bigger question: When judges and state board members don't put the public interest first, who can the people count on to stand up for transparency? Who will serve as the people's advocate to push for an open court system?
The sealing of the Coral Resorts transcript is not the only recent example of the public being shut out. Others include:
Some judges are in need of a reminder of the court rules -- and the importance of giving the public and media access. Their reflex should always be for more sunshine, not less. Otherwise, citizens are forced to judge a book by its cover.