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Utah state courts close off filings in family law cases

Published April 12, 2012 11:20 am

Officials cite privacy concerns; some say rule could hurt the public.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the days after Kristy Ragsdale's husband gunned her down in a Lehi church parking lot, divorce filings provided a clearer picture of her killer and the couple's deteriorating marriage.

Public court records also later detailed her mother's custody battle for Ragsdale's two young sons.

Now Utah state courts have closed off thousands of filings in family law cases from public view, with court officials citing privacy concerns as the state moves to exclusively electronic filing. But the change has some questioning whether the rule insulates judges from scrutiny and hurts the public at large.

The rule, approved by the Utah Judicial Council, went into effect April 1 but is retroactive and means most filings in divorces, protective orders and other domestic cases will now be available only to the parties involved. Judgments, orders and decrees will remain public, as will the case histories and hearings.

"In family pleadings, you have very private information about peoples' lives," said Douglas Adair, vice chair of the Utah Bar's family law section, which asked the Utah Judicial Council for the rule change. "This protects privacy."

Adair said the idea was borne out of a consensus concern among family law attorneys.

"I can't honestly say we were hearing about a lot of cases of things happening to people, but I think it was just a common sense thing," he said.

In the past, such filings have been open but the involved parties were able to ask judges to make their cases private.

Tim Shea, a staff attorney for the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts, said the Judicial Council was concerned people representing themselves in court may not be aware of that possibility or weren't taking advantage of it. The rule change was put out for public comment late last year and approved by the Judicial Council in January.

Officials considered making the filings unavailable online but available at state courthouses. Ultimately, Shea said, the idea was rejected.

"We're moving to electronic filings exclusively," he said. "So the Internet becomes our filing cabinet."

For Kristy Ragsdale's mother, Ann Palizzi, having those court records available to the public came as a shock at first.

"When the affidavits were filed, I was surprised that it all immediately became public record," she said. "But there wasn't really anything there that bothered me. We don't have family secrets in the closet."

In the end, she felt the openness helped in some ways as she won custody of her grandsons and later saw David Ragsdale sentenced to up to life in prison for the murder.

"Because our case was high profile, I think the judges felt like there would be a day of accountability when it came to election time," she said. "I think it even helped in the criminal case. The judges know that the public follows their actions."

David Reymann, a Salt Lake City lawyer who specializes in First Amendment and media issues, said whether the records are online or in a courthouse should not matter.

"Any time you put in a categorical classification that all records are going to be private, you have to be very careful about the operations of the judicial system being put behind closed doors," Reymann said. "The public has a real interest in ensuring the judicial system is treating people fairly and the system is operating the way it should."

For most people, the only interaction they will have with the courts will come through family law proceedings. For example, Reymann said, closing the records off from the public will keep people from knowing if the courts are treating women and men differently in divorce settlements and child custody disputes, or if the courts are being adequately protective in domestic violence cases.

"It's very hard to do that if all those records are put off limits," he said. "There are certainly aspects of family law and domestic relations law that should be maintained as private. ... The solution should be to use a scalpel, not a sledge hammer."

Salt Lake Tribune editor Nancy Conway, a founding member of the Utah Media Coalition, said the change "blocks our access to cases that are of public interest."

"The judicial system isn't exempt from public monitoring — just like other agencies, it bears watching," she said. "How will we know what they are doing? Are they functioning the way they should? Is justice being dispensed in a fair and balanced way? Are kids and others who need protection getting it? Those are the kinds of things the public has a right to know. You don't want family — or any other court — closed off from public view."

Those who aren't associated with a case can still petition a judge to make the records public, at which point the burden of proving why the documents should remain private would fall on the parties involved.

"I think that's fair. The courts are open to the public," said Bart Johnsen, a Salt Lake City divorce attorney. "If you wanted to see the Smiths' financial declaration, the judge might say, 'I just don't see there's a public interest there.' But if you've got a public figure and all of a sudden there's a protective order entered, that very well might be something the public has an interest in."

To view case filings, parties now must go to the courthouse and present proof of their involvement to court clerks. The change has been at times an inconvenience to family law attorneys, who rely on legal runners and other attorneys to pull files.

The change caught attorney and state Sen. Lyle Hillyard by surprise. He learned something was up after his assistant was unable to pull a case file last week that he wanted to see. Attorneys already had a mechanism to seal records, Hillyard said.

"I do that when I have controversial, high-profile divorces," he said.

But the new rule will likely add steps in certain cases, such as when a client wants to modify a divorce that was previously handled by a different attorney, he said.

"I am sure there will be negative reactions to it," Hillyard said. "I have some."

Rob Buttars, director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah, said the rule change may result in a more involved process for getting data used in the center's ongoing research projects.

"It is a lot easier for us to get access to publicly available records," said Buttars, who hadn't heard about the policy change until contacted by a reporter.

The center's projects focus on recidivism and risk. For example, it is now participating in a three-year study of different treatments for domestic violence offenders to see which approach is most effective.

The center doesn't need personal information for most of its projects — just what a person did, what treatment he or she received and whether or not the person repeated the offense.

But the new rule could complicate projects that involve multiple issues, such as drug, mental health and domestic violence offenses, Buttars said.

"It's going to require negotiation," he said.

afalk@sltrib.com

brooke@sltrib.com Rule changes effects thousands of cases

A new rule adopted by the Utah Judicial Council has changed the status of case filings in domestic cases from public to private, closing the filings to all but the individuals involved and their attorneys. Among the types of cases now considered private:

• Paternity actions

• Grandparent visitation

• Child support

• Divorce

• Stalking

• Protective orders

• Child custody

• Guardianship

• Cohabitant abuse (domestic violence)

• Common law marriage

• Conservatorship