Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How clout keeps court cases secret

On the eighth floor of the Daley Center, behind a locked metal door, is a narrow room known as the vault.

Within its walls reside files that Cook County Circuit Court judges have ordered hidden from the public, something they have done hundreds of times since 2000.
Although state law requires that certain types of lawsuits must be sealed, a Tribune investigation has found that judges improperly removed others from public view, including cases involving a famous chef, millionaire businessmen and even other judges.

The Tribune's review of cases found that judges regularly fail to give a reason in their written orders for sealing files; hide entire case files when they needed only to remove sensitive information such as Social Security numbers or home addresses; and that the sealing orders often remain secret despite state case law finding orders are public documents and "should not be kept under seal."

Courts in the United States have a long tradition of openness, and experts say court secrecy fosters mistrust and can put public safety at risk.

"These cases go to the integrity of the courts system," said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has fought for openness in the courts. "It is hard to have a democratic system, or one that works to make sure the law is just and the courts are fair, if what happens in the courts is secret."

In Illinois, bills aimed at curtailing secrecy in the courts have failed multiple times in the Legislature since 1999, opposed by the health care, insurance and manufacturing industries.

There is no way to know what is contained in Cook County's sealed files since they remain in locked rooms. But a review of dozens of previously sealed court files in the Law Division offers a glimpse, with instances of the well-connected and the well-known having their cases hidden from the public.

One such case involved chef Laurent Gras, who led Chicago's acclaimed L20 restaurant to achieve Michelin's three-star rating, the guide's highest.

Gras, an avid cyclist, was riding his $11,000 S-Works bike on the city's North Side in September 2008 when he and a car collided in an intersection, according to court records. He suffered seven broken ribs, a collapsed lung, two pelvic fractures and cuts and bruises.

In December 2008, he sued the 22-year-old driver in the Law Division, where complex legal battles play out and where large amounts of money are at stake.

Gras filed his complaint under a pseudonym, "John Doe," and asked Judge William Maddux to seal the entire file. Maddux, who presides over the court's Law Division, granted Gras' request.

Maddux gave no reason in his written order for sealing the file.

Instead, his order contained vague language similar to what is found in other judges' orders for sealing files: "Plaintiff's motion is granted and this cause of action shall be filed under a fictitious name and the court file shall be sealed and not unsealed until further order of the court."

Full Article and Source:
How clout keeps court cases secret


StandUp said...

Secrecy allows them to hide their wrongdoing, especially in guardianships.

Thelma said...

The judges are not following the law. Now what?

Anonymous said...

Sealed? How about in Florida,Guardianship of Retta Rickow, Judge Patrick Caddell, just avoids including parties, he just pretends they don't exist. Caddell and his troops just take huge fees from Retta's estate and have the trustee, who is an attorney pay them without the court ever seeing their fees. No need for anyone to see them. That is how it works here in Fl. under Judge Caddell. He is the boss of the wards estate!

Anonymous said...

Welcome to Crook County Illinois just think of what the reporters didn't discover? This is only a thimble full of the courthouse building of tricksters and worse. Think this isn't affecting YOU? It is and it will alive or dead probate is in the majorities futures - no way out they get you coming and going and hide their dirty deeds and billing for their services and other ways of showing their gratitude to keep the gig going.

Anonymous said...

Records are also kept from public viewing in the side rooms (next to the court room)where the case is heard on the 18th floor of the Daley Center.

So how can citizens do anythings about it? said...

Citizens don't know judges are not following the law. In fact, in Colorado, judges are violating ethics rules left and right, and it is common for officials in the judicial branch to say, "We have no say in what judges do." Judges can seal files illegally, unseal files illegally and do, in secret. Officials 'say' judges have to "follow the law," but why asked what happens if one or two or all of them don't, the answer is silence.

B Inberg said...

Oh my what a surprise! Clout in Chicago? In IL? You betcha!

Anonymous said...

They do this in Tarrant County, Texas, too. The probate court sealed the record of a prominent multi-millionaire investor who developed a brain disease and was put under guardianship. Use your imagination and experience in estate looting to imagine what was being concealed from the public.

Anonymous said...

Not only are records kept from public viewing in the vault on the 8th floor of the Daley Center, but certain records are kept from public viewing on the 18th floor (where guardianships are handled) as well. It is not uncommon to go to the 12th floor Records Department in an attempt to view a probate case from the 18th floor. The clerks on the 12th floor may tell you the judge has the record, and no one is available to go get the record for you.

If you adamantly pursue your request, you may then be sent to the 8th floor, who then sends you to the 18th floor. If a baliff is available on the 18th floor, he/she may allow you to go into a restricted side room to the court room where the case has been heard. These side rooms contain large file cabinets where controversial records are stored. If the file you are seeking is in that room, you may be allowed to view it. However, no copy machine is available there to make copies of any of the records.

In addition, many of the guardianship cases from the 18th floor have "restricted images" listed on the online dockets. There are guardianship cases where controversial billings have been submitted for payment from wards' estates. These billings are then attached to medical records, so they can be "restricted" from public viewing.

Also, many of the guardianship cases which are known to be controversial no longer have the next court date listed on the online docket; this helps to keep court watchers from watching cases where suspected corruption is occuring.

One can only ask: Why are public records being kept from the public by the judges on the 18th floor of the Daley Center?

Karen said...

It's all about who benefits from keeping these cases sealed. Sealed cases cover up wrongdoing. It's that simple.

Mary Waddell said...

Sealing court records prevents justice for our citizens.

National laws are needed to stop this practice of secrecy.

Linda Kincaid, MPH said...

The San Bernardino County, CA Sheriff goes beyond sealing evidence in a case. They “misplace“ evidence and claim to have no record of what was submitted. When my mom was abducted in 2010, I gave a statement to Deputy Grant Ward of the Yucaipa substation. I submitted copies of letters my mom wrote to me and copies of bank statements showing my name on my mom’s account. I also submitted proof that I had a key to my mom’s safe deposit box. Deputy Ward’s report stated that my mother and I were estranged and had no contact for 20 years.

Two years later, we took Deputy Ward’s deposition and showed him copies of the documents I submitted in 2010. He testified under oath that he had never seen those documents before. He said I came into the meeting with a stack of paper, but he insisted I did not leave the documents with him. I can only assume he destroyed evidence so the facts would not interfere with his investigation.