Editorial: Unsealing of divorce records a slippery slope
The unsealing of divorce court records of a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Illinois could impact the presidential aspirations of Sen. John Kerry, who has his own divorce records under seal in Massachusetts.
The publication of accusations made by Jack Ryans ex, actress Jeri Ryan, led him to withdraw from the senate race last week. Both Ryans had asked that the records -- in which Mrs. Ryan claimed her husband had tried to get her to go to sex clubs and have sex with him while others watched -- be kept secret.
But, at the behest of the Chicago Tribune, a California judge overruled the divorced couples attorneys, who asserted the publics right to know took a back seat to protecting the Ryans child from the embarrassing publicity the release of the records would generate.
In his ruling, Judge Robert Schnider said of the Ryans, "They were aware they were in a public court system, and protection from embarrassment cannot be a basis for keeping from the public whats put in public courts."
Schnider also said "the openness of court files must be maintained, so that the public ..can be assured that there is no favoritism shown to the rich and powerful."
Jack Ryan, a handsome, rich Wall Street financier turned inner-city school teacher, was a very interesting Republican candidate. But he concluded that he couldnt overcome the negative publicity surrounding the revelation of his ex-wifes allegation.
Now that the unsealing of court documents has chased one candidate from this Novembers ballot, will it chase another?
We hope not.
It is difficult for us to argue that public court records as a matter of course should be sealed because they might cause embarrassment to the people involved. We think Judge Schnider is right, not only as a matter of law but also as a matter of fact.
Normal people arent routinely accorded the benefit of having their court disputes kept secret. Why should the rich and powerful be treated any differently? They shouldnt be.
Still, the media shouldnt be in the business of gratuitously printing the embarrassing details of peoples private lives, even when they are brought up in court. The key word here is "gratuitously."
Some people reasonably believe that how people act in their private affairs can be a window into how they will act in their public dealings. If a person has a messy, undisciplined private life, it is not unlikely some of that will spill over into how they conduct themselves in business or politics. Some voters put a lot of stock in the private lives of candidates. Its why many candidates seek to portray themselves of solid, decent family people. Politicians know that voters dont just vote for the political positions candidates take. They often vote for the person they feel most comfortable with and like personally.
Likeability and personal magnetism go a long way in politics.
Which brings us to Sen. Kerry.
In 1988, he and his first wife got a divorce. They asked that the court records of that divorce be sealed, and a Massachusetts judge granted that request.
But now that Judge Schnider has opened up the records of the Ryan marriage, it will be difficult for Kerry to keep his sealed.
Already, his operatives are calling any effort to unseal his divorce records political "gutter ball" and a "trash hunt."
Internet muckraker Matt Drudge is quoting one senior Kerry source as saying, "I would argue, adamantly, the records should remain sealed -- and out of the hands of Johns political enemies."
But that cant be a good enough reason for public records to remain sealed. Imagine what Republican partisans will have to say if John Kerrys divorce record is left sealed after one of their candidates felt the need to bow out of a race after his was made public.
Of course, after having access to the records, the media will have to judge for itself how newsworthy any of the information contained in them is.
Ten years after their divorce, the ex-Mrs. Kerry wrote a book about her "suffocating marriage" to, she claimed, help other couples trapped in such unhappy relationships.
We, in the media, will have no such excuse for printing the sordid and unhappy details of the Kerrys break-up.
We will say the people have a right to know as much as we can find out about any man or woman who wants to be president of the United States.
What they do with the information after chewing it over is up to them. If that includes changing their reading habits or canceling subscriptions, thats fair, too.