Confidentiality and Divorce

By Attorney Gregg Herman
July 30, 2015

An Oklahoma judge recently had to defend his decision to seal the divorce file of country music stars Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert.  According to the newpaper story, the judge said:

“If the pleadings in this case were made public, it would significantly compromise the personal and financial privacy of the parties,” the judge said:

“There is no legitimate public interest in the personal and financial matters of these parties’ dissolution. These parties are entertainers and are not guardians of the public trust.  There is likely to be significant publicity regarding these parties greatly in excess of that of most other parties.  Because the matters contained in this case are likely to be of significant media interest, but are private in nature and not matters which are of a legitimate public interest, there is a compelling privacy interest which outweighs the public’s interest in the record.”

In Wisconsin, a court is allowed to “impound” a family law file “for good cause shown”.  In my practice, I have had this request granted on occasion – and denied.  For example, when I represented a judge recently, the court had no trouble finding “good cause”.  However, a short time later in a case where one party was a partner in a major law firm, the court denied the joint request of the parties.

The issue pits the interests of the parties who would like to keep their affairs private from the public interest in the openness of our legal system.  In representing my clients, my preference is for the former.  However,  it is nice to have a legal system which is open and public.  

Which gets me to the most recent attempt in Wisconsin to restrict access to court files which are on-line in the CCAP system.  This time, the attempt failed, but there will be new efforts.  Absent on-line access, only those “in the know” will have access to the files, meaning those who know where the files are physically kept and how to get them.  In other words, lawyers.  

The argument on the other side is that the public may not understand or use the information appropriately, especially regarding criminal cases which are brought, but later dismissed.  While this is a legitimate concern, in my opinion, “public” should  mean exactly that – not “public” for lawyers only.  The exceptions should be rare and far between – and not include singers, no matter how famous they may be.

Attorney Gregg Herman is a founding partner of Loeb & Herman S.C. in Milwaukee, WI. He practices family law exclusively, and can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 272-5632.