OSU journalism prof to Bartlett Jr: "Sealing court records isn't supporting the public's right to know"

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OSU journalism prof Joey Senat, writing on the blog of FOI Oklahoma, an organization that promotes open meetings, open records, and government transparency, chides mayoral candidate Dewey Bartlett Jr for having public records pertaining to his divorce sealed shortly after pledging himself to transparency in government.

Bartlett's request came a day or so after FOI Oklahoma Inc. received his signed Open Government Pledge "to support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power."

Note to Mr. Bartlett: Sealing court records isn't supporting the public's right to know.

Senat calls Bartlett's argument for closure -- fear of identity theft -- "specious."

"Those fears aren't backed up with statistics or even anecdotal evidence showing public records are a source for identity thieves," [Oklahoman]reporter Bryan Dean summarized.

Public records were not listed as a significant source of identity theft by the 2006 Identity Fraud Survey Report co-released by the Better Business Bureau. It said 30 percent of identity theft came from stolen wallets or purses, 15 percent from close associates such as friends and family, 9 percent from stolen mail and garbage, and 9 percent from computer hacking.

Senat explains why Bartlett Jr's divorce case should remain open to public scrutiny:

First, the public is entitled to make the most informed choice possible when selecting who will operate its government. Divorce files, like many other court records, can provide valuable information about a candidate....

Second, if Bartlett's records in the public court system are closed, why not seal everyone's files?

Because the information in those court files can help each of us make more informed life-affecting decisions. Choosing a business partner? Hiring an employee? Selecting a doctor, baby-sitter or day-care provider for your child? Concerned about your daughter's new boyfriend? Etc.

Personal information in government-held records can help us make better decisions about the people and events most important in our lives....

Third, access to court records assures the public that everyone is treated equally in our judicial system and that decisions aren't "based on secret bias or partiality" - as the U.S. Supreme Court said in defense of open courts.

"Closed trials breed suspicion of prejudice and arbitrariness, which in turn spawns disrespect for law," the Court said. The same can be said for court records sealed from public view.

That last point seems especially important in this case. Dewey Jr's own pleadings in the case speak of significant economic inequality between him and his then-wife Susan. Dewey Jr had considerable wealth in accounts to which he was sole signatory. According to his May 16, 2003, motion for summary judgment and attached affidavit, his wife did not work outside the home, did not bring assets into the marriage, and received a $2,000 monthly allowance from Dewey Jr. He estimated the value of her separate assets as of October 2002 as 1% of his -- $2,830,500 to $27,500.

Closing court records in a case would make it possible to conceal a perversion of justice in favor of those with wealth. An open court record allows the public to judge the judge and weigh his fairness in the balance at the next election.

Finally, Senat addresses the problem with Bartlett's distinction between "legitimate media" and political bloggers (emphasis added):

Bartlett told the Tulsa World he would be "glad for any member of the legitimate media to have total access" to his divorce file. If elected mayor, would he restrict access to other government documents only to the "legitimate media"? Will he be the one to decide who is a member of the "legitimate media"?

The public's right to know belongs to the public. That means everyone, including political bloggers.

Signing the Open Pledge is a promise to support the spirit of open government - even when it inconveniences the candidate.

Thanks to Dr. Joey Senat for the thoughtful analysis and careful reasoning and to FOI Oklahoma for defending government transparency.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 5, 2009 3:08 PM.

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