A divorce case in Osage County was opened Wednesday after the editor of The Bigheart Times questioned why the entire case, including the names of the couple, lawyers and judge, had been sealed.
Even the order sealing the case had been closed to the public.
Debra Zinke, owner of the Z7 Bar Ranch in Osage County, is seeking a divorce from Robert Zinke, the president of Tulsa-based oil and gas company Zenergy Inc., Bigheart Times owner Louise Redcorn reported today for the Tulsa World.
Redcorn had challenged the manner in which the case had been sealed in Osage County on July 22.
Gentner Drummond, attorney for Debra Zinke, told Redcorn that the state Open Records Act justified the case being sealed.
No, it doesn’t.
Drummond also claimed that divorce cases are commonly filed under seal in Oklahoma.
No, they are not. And such a practice should not become common.
Our public court system is just that — public. The rich and powerful don’t have a separate judicial system in our state.
Why else should the public be entitled to know what’s in a divorce case?
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 business dealings and other aspects of a candidate for political office, an elected official or a powerbroker who influences government.
Take, for instance, the divorce file of then-Tulsa mayoral candidate Dewey Bartlett Jr. In September 2009, Michael Bates posted on his conservative blog Batesline a small portion of the 2002 case file that brought into question Bartlett’s financial acumen, a key selling point in his campaign.
(After Bates began posting parts of the file, Bartlett succeeded in getting a Tulsa County special judge to seal the file — a day or so after Bartlett had signed FOI Oklahoma’s Open Government Pledge.)
Second, if some divorce 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.
In requesting the Zinke divorce case be filed, Drummond wrote that “publication of the name of the parties in this case, either in the public record or through public media, would do irreparable economic harm to the parties, and their related companies.”
He cited no laws or court rules to justify sealing the case, reported Redcorn.
She said Osage County District Judge John Kane deferred her questions to Drummond but suggested that “irreparable harm” could result if the case was open. She said records show Kane granted the order “in the interests of justice.”
What justice? What compelling reason relevant to this case did Kane have for sealing the entire file and overriding the public interest in open court records?
Kane’s decision smacks of smacks of impropriety and favoritism.
Drummond said he was “conceding ground” by having the file opened.
He also said he should take the blame for his “legal shenanigans.”
“I was culpable. I don’t think Judge Kane was culpable in any way, and I know the Zinkes aren’t culpable. They just wanted to do it privately. They never mentioned the word ‘seal,'” he told Redcorn.
But Drummond told her that he would defend the privacy of any final settlement “over his dead body.”
The final settlement shouldn’t be closed any more than the rest of the file should have been.
But if it is, the public can trust that Redcorn will be there to challenge such a decision.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.