When the details broke this week about Gov. Robert Bentley's divorce settlement being unsealed, a reporter working on the story told me, "This kind of reporting makes me feel a little dirty."
Welcome to the club. That's the way lots of journalists I have known over the years felt when circumstances put them in the position of having to report about the personal lives of political figures.
Sadly, however, sometimes such reporting is often necessary.
By now, those readers who are interested know the who-got-what details in the governor's divorce filings. But the filings do not contain what several news organizations -- including WSFA -- were looking for when they took court action to have the filings unsealed -- indications of whether the circumstances leading up to the divorce involved actions that might reflect on or affect Bentley's performance of his duties as governor.
To their credit, Bentley and Dianne Bentley both finally did the right thing and asked that the documents be unsealed.
[DOCUMENTS: Bentley divorce finalized (.pdf)]
[DOCUMENTS: Bentley divorce settlement details (.pdf)]
But they never should have been sealed in the first place. While Alabama judges have the right to seal divorce cases in certain situations, it is a step that should be taken only in rare circumstances, and not when it involves high profile elected or appointed officials.
According to court officials, only about one-half of 1 percent of divorce cases in Alabama in 2014 were sealed.
Actually, the Bentleys' original request to have the divorce proceedings sealed may have contained one of the best arguments for making them public. According to the motion to seal, “the defendant holds a prominent office in the state of Alabama, and it would be in the parties’ best interest that the public not be able to access the record in this divorce action.”
If the governor originally claimed that his "prominent office" was a reason to seal the record, how could he later claim that this was purely a personal issue? He couldn't logically have it both ways.
In addition, the sealing of the records simply fueled the rumors that have been swirling around Bentley for the past few months. If the governor thought sealing the records would tamp down the rumor mill, he was wrong; it had just the opposite effect.
Perhaps the governor and Dianne Bentley finally realized that sealing the record was making matters worse, not better. Whatever their reasons, we applaud them for finally doing the right thing.
Alabamians should hope that the state's judges will learn from this case as well. The public has a right to know what goes on in their court system, and the presumption should always be on the side of openness. Sealing court records -- even divorce cases -- should be done only in rare situations where the circumstances clearly and overwhelmingly outweigh the public's right to know how government and the courts operate.
Finally, and most importantly, the fact that a party to a legal action "holds a prominent office" should never be a reason for judges to seal court records. Instead, it is one more among many reasons for judges to keep court records open to the public.
Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper editorial page editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com.
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