Actions in Lanese case put public access on trial

Two founding principles of this country are an open court system and a free press.

Both principles have been undermined by actions taken in the lawsuit filed over the treatment Brian Lanese received from two county paramedics after he was severely beaten.

In his zeal to hide disciplinary information contained in the paramedics' personnel records, Beaufort County's attorney, Robert Achurch, tried to stop this newspaper from publishing a story that included allegations found in court documents open to the public.

He failed, but that doesn't make his actions any less egregious.

Beyond his attempt at prior restraint, an extreme step, he took his request for a temporary restraining order to Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen without notifying the newspaper or Lanese's attorney.

The fact that the attempt to stop a story before it was published came on behalf of a government entity that likes to tout its transparency magnifies the error. That's true whether Achurch was instructed to do so by officials from the state Insurance Reserve Fund or Beaufort County officials or came up with the idea himself.

At the bottom of all this lies another effort to hide information that should be public. Mullen earlier issued an order, with the consent of the two parties in the lawsuit, that hides from public view the paramedics' personnel records and Lanese's medical records. The order prevents anyone not directly involved in the case and listed in the order from seeing them.

Neither the medical records nor the personnel records should be kept secret. The charges made by the Laneses and the county's defense against those charges revolve around both. That protective order should go.

When you look to the courts to solve your problems or address grievances, especially when it involves a public entity, openness must be expected.

As for the county, disciplinary information about public employees should be open. That's especially true when a lawsuit calls into question their judgment and job performance.

This order presented a double bind for the Laneses' attorney, Joel Bailey, when he attempted to amend the lawsuit to bring in information about the disciplinary history of the two paramedics. How does he ask to amend the lawsuit, keep the information out of the public record and still meet the judge's requirement that he file the new complaint along with that request?

Now, Achurch has asked Mullen to find the Laneses and Bailey in contempt of court for doing what Bailey says the judge told them to do. Bailey also says Achurch went to Mullen to ask for a hearing without notifying Bailey and without giving him a chance to respond.

Beaufort County attorney Lad Howell tells us, "I'm at a loss to understand why you all (the newspaper) think that the information should be open to the public in an active litigation trial."

That's what defines an open court system, and that's especially true when the "active litigation" is aimed at public employees who are hired to provide critical life-saving services.

His and Achurch's worries about pre-trial publicity affecting the ability to seat an unbiased juryalso are unfounded. There are ways to make sure that happens that fall far short of the drastic steps they have taken and without jeopardizing openness and First Amendment rights. The jury selection process is designed to address that, as does the right to ask for a change of venue for a trial.

Perhaps Howell, Achurch and others involved in the case would prefer to settle this among themselves without the bothersome public peering over their shoulders. But that's not the way our court system is supposed to operate. That's for the protection of all of us.

And we would remind them that should the parties reach an out-of-court settlement, the terms of that settlement are to be public, too. A S.C. Supreme Court rule states settlements involving public entities cannot be kept secret: "Under no circumstances shall a court approve sealing a settlement agreement which involves a public body or institution."

An already complicated case has been made needlessly more complicated, while the people who have a stake in the outcome -- the residents and taxpayers of Beaufort County -- have been shut out.

The public deserves better.