Except in extreme circumstances, light should be let in the courtroom

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 4:58 a.m. CDT

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, October 6:

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(MCT) — Under Illinois law, the proceedings of some court cases are kept hidden from public view. This can make sense in narrow circumstances, such as protecting the identities of children who are physically or sexually abused.

Judges, though, have broad discretion to decide when court records are sealed. They’re supposed to balance the public interest in open proceedings against a slim set of justifications for pulling shut the curtains of justice. Whenever possible, the light should pour in.

Tribune reporters Cynthia Dizikes and Todd Lighty recently revealed that judges in Cook County make it too easy for well-connected people to hide court filings that would expose the litigants to unwanted scrutiny. Their reporting uncovered lax practices that undermine the guiding principle of conducting the people’s business where the people can see it for themselves.

The Tribune investigation found that judges regularly fail to give a reason in their orders for the so-called “sealing” of files, as they should to comply with the law and court guidelines. They sometimes keep the “sealing orders” secret as well, so the public has no way to know that a case has been hidden. They also seal entire cases when they need only to remove sensitive information such as home addresses or Social Security numbers.

The result is a pattern of arbitrary secrecy. Those with clout can hush up matters that should remain part of the public record, accessible to anyone with an interest. Among those whose cases were hidden from a public airing: a famous chef, two sitting judges, high-powered businessmen, the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Chicago Cubs and the team’s owner at the time—Tribune Co., publisher of this newspaper.

Dizikes and Lighty found that hundreds of court files have been hidden from public view since 2000.

Asked why he decided in 2000 to seal a dispute over rent money between Elliott Muse Jr. and Adam Bourgeois Jr., Cook County judges at the time, then-Judge Wayne Rhine explained, “I didn’t want two sitting judges hanging out their dirty laundry. If they run for retention or for another office, this could come back to haunt them. I did it as an accommodation for fellow judges.”

There’s Exhibit A in the case for open records. Rhine’s courtesy to two judges was an affront to voters, denying them information that might weigh on a decision whether to retain the judges. Such backroom deals and blatant favoritism erode public confidence in the court system.

A related problem is the sealing of records when all parties agree to it as a condition of a settlement.  Judges with busy court dockets can be tempted to rubber-stamp such agreements for the sake of expediency. Yet those sealed cases could be covering up evidence of clear and present consumer hazards, such as faulty tires or dangerous cribs. They could be hiding the workings of government in cases involving public officials. The public has a right to expect that court records will be kept open except in narrowly prescribed circumstances.

At least 20 states have adopted laws or court rules that seek to protect the sanctity of public court records. Congress is considering a similar measure, the Sunshine In Litigation Act, which would apply to federal courts. Illinois is behind the times.

Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, the state’s largest court system, could react much more quickly than the Legislature. Evans is responsible for seeing to it that the judges in his system act responsibly when they seal documents. As the Tribune investigation shows, Evans has a problem on his hands: In some cases his judges aren’t following existing guidelines. That has to stop.

There can’t be one court system for people with clout and another court system for everybody else. These are public courts. Keep the doors open.

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