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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arguments over Scaife divorce records continue ... and continue ...

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2009 at 9:01 PM

How did our latest courtroom effort to shed light on the Scaife divorce case go? Put it this way: The first decision Judge Alan Hertzberg had to make was whether to close the hearing on our petition to open some of the records.

Hertzberg has had the uneviable task of presiding over the contentious divorce dispute, in which teams of attorneys for Tribune-Review publisher Richard Scaife and his wife have been battling for three years now.

But today's proceeding had a hopeful beginning: Despite a request by the Scaife attorneys to clear the courtroom, Hertzberg decided to keep the hearing open. That's why you're reading this now, and why you may be reading accounts of the hearing in tomorrow's Tribune-Review and Post-Gazette. Both papers had reporters on hand.

(UPDATE: The Post-Gazette's coverage is here.) 

The truth is that what we were asking for seems pretty modest. At least to me.

First, we're asking the court to release the decree sealing the case, so that we, and the public, can understand why even courtroom testimony in this case is under wraps.

Pennsylvania's Constitution requires that "All courts shall be open," and while there are exceptions, youd expect the public to get an explanation about why an exception is being made. Not here, though: The order sealing the case has been sealed right along with it. As I noted when this issue first came to light, "we don't know what's going on inside the courtroom -- and we don't even know why we can't find out."

Second, in order to keep abreast of future developments in the case, we want the docket to be opened up as well. A docket is just an index of the actions taken in a case -- a timeline that shows, for example, that on such-and-such day, the defendant filed a motion to have the case dismissed.

At least, that's what I've always thought a docket was. But attorneys for the Scaifes seemed concerned that we might be asking for something more, like carte blanche to look at all the underlying documents themselves. Hertzberg seemed puzzled by their concern, and in fact said our request "was not that complicated."

But it was, apparently. In addition to the dispute over what a docket is, the Scaife attorneys also raised procedural objections, claiming (for example) that we only gave them 7 days to respond to our petition, rather than the 10 they said they were entitled to. There was also some speculation about what we were really up to.

Particularly vociferous in objecting was Wililam Pietragallo, the attorney for Margaret Scaife. Peitragallo called our petition "the first game of a charade, and I don't want to play." Yale Gutnick, the attorney for Scaife himself, worried that anything given to our attorneys would "end up in the newspaper" shortly afterward.

By the end of the hearing, Hertzberg decided to hold another hearing -- originally scheduled for this Friday but now delayed, perhaps for weeks. At the same time, attorneys for the Scaifes are apparently going to take another look at the records we requested, to see if they can pinpoint any sensitive information like "a matter of life and death or national security" -- as our ACLU attorney, Vic Walczak, put it.

So this may work itself out in the end. But ironically enough, before the Scaife attorneys could look at the docket, Hertzberg had to sign a court order giving them permission to do so. Even the attorneys who have been arguing the case, it seems, aren't allowed to take a look.

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