Keeping Divorce Records Secret?

You need to read this column by Howard Troxler in the St. Petersburg Times on the discussion in Florida about keeping divorce court records secret. There’s a move afoot to restrict sharply the information that the public will be able to see about divorce cases. Predictably, journalists think that’s a terrible idea.

The nice thing about newspaper columns is that, every now and then, good writers write them. Clearly, Howard Troxler writes well. Try this:

Secret courts are a bad idea.

Secret courts are a bad idea for so many different reasons I can’t list them all.

For starters, when the government accuses somebody of a crime, that person is entitled to a public trial.

That’s an old but good idea. It goes back to one of the reasons we fired the British king and started our own country.

There are lots of other good reasons to keep the courts public. The main one: We have to be able to see what is going on.

Is our legal system operating fairly? Is this judge, or that one, abusing his or her power? Are the divorce courts biased? Are the sentences for crooks about right? Is the clerk of court doing a good job?

Each of us might prefer at first blush to keep secret our own lawsuit or divorce case. But think twice – do you really want to take your case into a courthouse where the judge, the lawyers, even the court clerks, operate in secret?

I have a tender ambivalence on this issue. Every day I look into the eyes of hapless men and women who want nothing more than to move on with their lives. Quietly, please, with a measure of dignity if at all possible. Will this appear in the newspaper? No? Good. Can somebody go to the courthouse and read about it? Yes? Well, maybe nobody will notice.

On the other hand, coming to family law as I do from a previous career as a reporter, I find myself saying “Amen” to the Howard Troxlers of the world. Secret courts won’t dispense justice for long. Very soon, secret courts become unfair courts, places where you and I wouldn’t feel comfortable. Yes, painful though it may be, let’s keep our courts and the decisions they render public.

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