The Chief Judge of one Circuit reviewed all cases, released case numbers for them and affirmed the propriety of the sealing some.
The Chief Judge also reported that the majority of the hidden cases were family court cases. However, secret dockets seems to be problematic in areas of wealth.Special treatment for prominent CT divorcees
In Connecticut, a secret docketing system was so hidden that not even the chief justice knew of its existence. Any party could choose to file a case under three different levels of secrecy. In Level 1 or "super-secret" cases, all information, including the case number, the parties' names, the nature of the case, and all court documents remained off the public docket. Level 2 docketing permitted disclosure of the case number and parties' names, but sealed all other information. And Level 3 cases were open to the public except for certain sealed documents contained in the court file. This secret docketing system is not found in Connecticut court rules or statutes, but was established as an internal administrative procedure to assist court clerks in processing sealed files.
Last fall, Connecticut Law Tribune reporter Thomas B. Scheffey discovered the secret docketing system while reporting on the divorce of former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch, who filed for divorce in Bridgeport, Conn., ending his 13-year marriage to Jane Welch.
A lawyer connected with the divorce said he was surprised that the court offered a range of levels of secrecy, including complete invisibility, Scheffey said.
While Welch's divorce is on the public docket, others are kept secret.
When the Law Tribune first reported on Connecticut's secret docketing system in December 2002, the judicial branch identified 185 Level 1 civil and family cases. By July, the judicial branch disclosed that only 46 Level 1 cases remained. The court reclassified 127 Level 1 cases as Level 2 and 11 cases as unsealed.
The Law Tribune and the Hartford Courant have filed suit against the state's chief court administrator to obtain access to the docket information pertaining to the remaining Level 1 cases.
"Any investigative journalist would want to know who are the beneficiaries to these super-secret cases," Klau said.
"In my experience, the party in divorce who is in the less powerful bargaining position doesn't want secrecy," Scheffey explained.
As the Law Tribune and the Hartford Courant discovered, among those to benefit from Level 1 secrecy were University of Connecticut President Philip E. Austin and Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, whose divorce cases are not on the public docket.
There is the "perception that there's an insider's game . . . that there's a judicial system for the rich and powerful and then there's a judiciary system for the rest of us," said Sen. John A. Kissel during a Judiciary Committee meeting regarding the super-secret docketing of cases. But any special treatment to preserve the confidentiality of a select few ended July 1 when the Connecticut Supreme Court issued new rules abolishing Level 1 secrecy.
Under the new rules, all case numbers and case names should be available to the public unless a special motion is made to request permission to use pseudonyms.
"A judge may issue an order sealing the contents of an entire court file only after finding that there is not available a more narrowly tailored method of protecting the overriding interest of the public in viewing the file, such as redaction, sealing a portion of the file or authorizing the use of pseudonyms," said Justice Peter T. Zarella, who presided over the public hearing regarding the rule change.
If a party wishes to seal the entire court file, he must file a motion to seal. A public hearing will be held no fewer than 15 days after filing the motion in order to give the public notice of the time and place of the hearing and an opportunity to object to the sealing.
In addition to posting a short calendar of sealing motions outside the clerk's office, Connecticut's Judicial Branch will provide public notice by listing all sealing motions on its Web site.
While Connecticut's Judicial Branch responded with new court rules and procedures after the exposure of the super-secret docketing system by the press, courts in Hawaii still maintain a secret docket.
Last summer, Rob Perez, a reporter for the Honolulu Star Bulletin, reported on Hawaii's secret docketing system and exposed how certain divorce cases involving local celebrities failed to appear on the public docket.
"If a case was deemed confidential, the existence of the case would not appear on our system," said Lori Okita, a court administrator for the Hawaii judiciary. "We could not confirm the existence or denial of a sealed case."
This is why Journalism is important. Everything else is just, Media.