Alerted by The Iconoclast, I wrote an item recently about a civil case put under total blackout in Benton County. It involved some prominent people and a corporate dispute, I was led to understand. The circuit clerk could not even tell me the names of the parties in the case. I was particularly curious because of a sealed proceeding that concerned an allegation that sealed information in the case had been leaked to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. Those events apparently were at the center of a closed contempt-of-court proceeding.
I stewed about it a while and did some asking around. I was told by one attorney that the case had been filed in the open. When I found, however, that the initial pleading was not available to the public, I drafted a motion objecting to total closure of the record.
Circuit Judge Xollie Duncan responded promptly. She said she would review the case file and talk with lawyers about whether portions of the file could be opened.
The judge entered an order in the case yesterday afternoon in response to my motion. She has modified her closure order. She said "certain matters contained within the complaints and the exhibits to the complaints are proprietary and confidential information which should be sealed herein. All other items within the file are to be open for public inspection."
The judge ordered parties to provide redacted copies of the original and subsequent complaints that will then be open to the public. Original documents will remain under seal.
I look forward to seeing the material. I now know the case number -- CV-2007-1972-5. Plaintiffs are the Laura Duke Revocable Trust, Robert B. Thornton, Bill Schwyhart, Richard M. Dunleavy, Michael Dunleavy and James Phillips. Defendants are Robert Lee Thompson Sr., Robert Lee Thompson Jr. and Vision Technologies Inc. This report is related to the dispute.
Generally, I think, many courts in Arkansas have been too quick to close judicial proceedings on motion of the parties. Why not? Generally, there's nobody from the public around to object. Courts clearly have the power to protect proprietary information, though I've seen cases where the sensitivity of certain data has been exaggerated. Fact is, people naturally like to keep their business and private lives private. But, as the Supreme Court has said any number of times, if people want to use the public's courts to decide their grievances, transparency is a necessity for accountability. For example: Who prevailed on the contempt of court motion in this case? These are the sorts of records by which the public may measure the quality of justice in a court.
Thanks to Judge Duncan for giving reasoned consideration to the motion.