Richard Mellon Scaife's divorce could be one of the "nastiest divorces in American history," according to New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove. But you're not likely to hear much about the legal proceedings in the Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ... or anywhere else.
Recent news items about the Tribune-Review publisher's dealings with second wife Margaret "Ritchie" Scaife, printed in his own newspaper and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, include goings-on not usually reported in his Shadyside neighborhood: At Christmas time, police removed Mrs. Scaife from the family home; she later got involved in an altercation while trying to reclaim a dog from the home.
But once the domestic dispute found its way to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court -- in the form of a request for support filed by Ritchie Scaife -- the very public split gained absolute privacy. Family Court Judge Alan Hertzberg ordered the case and all of its potentially revealing filings sealed.
Support and divorce proceedings in Pennsylvania are typically public records, open to anyone's perusal. But the books have been closed for Scaife, the world's 645th richest man, according to Forbes magazine. A CP search of nearly 5,500 family court cases available through the Allegheny County Prothonotary's Office Web site ... from support cases to protection from abuse orders to divorces ... showed just one sealed case this year: Scaife's. His first divorce, in the late 1980s, was similarly sealed.
Newspapers frequently oppose such secrecy, though it seems unlikely that the Trib will make a stand for freedom by suing the county to unseal Scaife's court documents. Scaife did not return messages left at his Trib office. It's impossible to know who his attorney of record is because that information is sealed as well. Hertzberg says he is unable to talk about his cases or the reason one may be sealed. Ritchie Scaife's attorney, Bill Pietragallo-- who represents her in charges related to the goings-on in Shadyside, which are a matter of public record -- declined to speak about the sealed proceedings. He did say that while no divorce action has been filed, it will be in the near future.
However, Albert Momjian, a high-profile Philadelphia family attorney and member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, says there's a simple reason Scaife is able to escape public scrutiny: money.
"I don't think, just because someone is a person of wealth and power, that they should be able to seal their proceedings," Momjian says. Scaife is worth $1.2 billion. "As a matter of law, it makes me really uneasy when someone is able to have rights and privileges that wouldn't be extended to the average person off the street."
"It's no secret that, generally speaking, this is a courtesy most often extended to people of influence," agrees Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman for the non-partisan Freedom Forum, a Virginia-based foundation focused on free-press issues. "One would generally expect people in the news business to be more understanding of the needs of public records to be as open as possible," McMasters says.
Indeed, during the 2004 presidential election, the Tribune-Review was one of several newspapers that went to court demanding that the will of the late Sen. John Heinz be unsealed for the world to see. Heinz's widow, Teresa Heinz, is then-Democratic candidate John Kerry's wife.
Those records weren't opened until after the election, in 2005. Still a Trib article that summer quoted its own attorney, Ron Barber of Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick & Potter, celebrating, "The fact that that door [of the Register of Wills office] is open to the public is one of the things that makes us different from the rest of the world ... [T]oday that door was open to the public once again." The content of the documents, he added, wasn't the most important factor at issue: It was the principle that most counted.
In an Aug. 19, 2004 editorial explaining its the effort to unseal the Heinz will in the name of "transparency of candidacy," the Trib wrote: "All documents related to the late senator's estate were sealed the day after his death. No reason was given ... Probate records are public documents."
So are family court records, usually.
In U.S. courts, the law is based on the "concept of precedent, so it's important for cases to be published and to be available to allow the law to develop," says Brian Vertz, a partner with the Downtown law firm of Pollock, Begg, Komar and Glasser and a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. In fact, Vertz says that since he began practicing in 1992, he has never dealt with a case that resulted in sealed records.
But Vertz also says he believes divorce cases warrant some level of discretion because of their personal nature. Divorce records could reveal proprietary information about a business, or they might attract publicity where minor children are involved. There are no such children in the Scaife marriage, but there could be business related to the Trib that Scaife might not want revealed.
Vertz doesn't think Scaife needs to act consistently in his dual roles ... as publisher, and as future ex-husband: "I don't think it in anyway undermines those [free-press] interests just because he wishes to maintain his privacy." He can't imagine there would be a great deal of public interest in Scaife's divorce -- other than a search for salacious details.
There is a precedent for sealing court records in such cases. In a 1986 decision, the state's Superior Court judge held that divorce proceedings "frequently involve painful recollections of a failed marriage ... and testimony which, if published, could serve only to embarrass and humiliate the litigants." In general, the court the public has a vested interest in being able to ensure that courts are operating fairly, but "no legitimate purpose can be served by broadcasting the intimate details of a soured relationship" ... or in disclosing how marital property is divided.
In Allegheny County, Judge J. Stanton Wettig wrote in a 1992 decision, Bryan v. Bryan, that there is a need to both protect privacy and preserve the precedental record. In that case, Wettig sealed the financial data while leaving most of the record public -- the complaint, subsequent orders and distribution of property.
Even Momjian agrees that certain pieces of information, such as Social Security numbers and bank-account numbers, should be redacted from the record. But other than that, he says, Scaife's court case should be as open as the records of your neighbor.
Momjian recalled representing CNN talk-show host Larry King in a Philadelphia divorce and causing a stir when he and King's wife asked for a sealed proceeding. "There were 18 reporters there to cover this," Momjian said. "When the judge asked them why they were there, they simply said it's an open courtroom." The judge kept the proceeding open.
"Why should the rules be different just because someone has a billion dollars?" Momjian says. "If the law makes a bus driver reveal his income sources in a public record, then it should make Richard Scaife or anyone else do it too."
Some information may indeed come out in the days ahead. Just prior to CP's deadline, Pietragallo filed a pleading seeking hundreds of Ritchie Scaife's personal items, items he contends are in the possession of her husband. This action is not sealed, Pietragallo says, because it is a separate case filed outside of family court and will be assigned to another judge.
Otherwise, however, curious onlookers may have to content themselves with whatever tidbits Scaife chooses to disclose. In a rare April 11 interview with gossip columnist Grove, Scaife said he had no pre-nuptial agreement.
"[W]ish me luck," Scaife asked the columnist.