Can Divorce Privacy Fly?

Singer R. Kelly no longer needs to wonder can divorce privacy fly in his case. We now know his legal name is Robert S. Kelly, and a lot of embarrassing information he wanted kept private. Although the files were initially sealed by the court in his divorce case, they have been opened to the public by an appellate court.

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Surviving R. Kelly’s Divorce

In 2006, R. Kelly filed a petition to dissolve his marriage with wife Andrea. In June 2013, the family court entered an agreed order directing that the entire court file be sealed because of a “serious likelihood of the media culling through the record for the purpose of revealing painful, potentially scandalous, details.”

In 2019, radio station WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune filed a joint motion to access the sealed court files after a more than $160,000 in unpaid child support landed the singer in jail, and just three weeks after Kelly was jailed while gathering the cash to post bond on criminal sexual abuse charges tied to allegations by four women.

Kelly and his former wife have been battling over finances for more than a decade, with the embattled R&B singer and his reality TV star ex each claiming poverty at times, the unsealed divorce filings show.

Among other revelations, Kelly was repeatedly accused of falling behind on child support and he sought to reduce them, claiming he had seen a “steady decline in his popularity” due in part to his “age, drastic decline in record sales, increased album purchase prices …. and the overall economic downturn.”

In response, Andrea Kelly tried to have his child support payments increased, saying he had “gone to great extents” to hide his income and assets. She also noted in the filing that her pay from the reality TV show “Hollywood Exes” wasn’t sufficient to pay the bills.

Kelly’s attorneys revealed that the singer faced a tax liability of more than $7 million and that the mortgage on his house in suburban Olympia Fields — often mentioned as the site of his alleged improper sexual encounters with teenage girls — had been foreclosed.

As long-standing allegations of predatory sexual behavior against Kelly gained public attention, his former wife accused him of withholding payments as punishment for her speaking out about his alleged abuse. In turn, Kelly has said her public allegations have made it difficult for him to earn money.

Florida Divorce Privacy

I’ve written on divorce privacy issues before. Divorce privacy is an issue that comes up a lot. Divorces in generally, and court records themselves, are public events, and the filed records of court proceedings are public records available for public examination.

Both the public and the media can challenge any closure order by filing the appropriate motion in court. The closure of court proceedings or records should only occur when it’s necessary to comply with established public policy, to protect trade secrets; or to protect children in a divorce among other reasons.

In addition, Florida has new rules protecting sensitive data from public view. This includes protecting Social Security, Bank Account, Debit, and Credit Card Numbers because if those numbers are included in a document, they may become part of the public record.

If information is absolutely required, there is a rule with procedures for sealing and unsealing of court records. Also, the Clerk of Court has the authority to redact or make confidential only specific information.

If sensitive information has already been filed in Court Records, you must complete and submit a “Notice of Confidential Information Within Court Filing” in order to remove or seal it.

“When a Woman’s Fed Up”

Andrea hinted at the long legal tussle in comments for the Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” which featured multiple women accusing Kelly of wrongdoing and amplified the wave of public backlash against the singer.

“People think that I’m living this great, lavish life, but they don’t understand,” she said. “… People just think oh, you know, she wants to come forward now because the checks stopped. … The checks have been over for a very long time.”

Originally, the family court order allowed public access “to the entire court file, including the redacted documents and noting the sealed documents” beginning on August 13, 2019.

But then the court clerk placed material in the public file that the court had ordered to be sealed and the court thereafter restricted further access in the best interest of the children.

WBEZ appealed and the appellate court reversed finding the right of the public to review court records is supported by constitutional guarantees and case law.

“Litigation is a public exercise; it consumes public resources. It follows that in all but the most extraordinary cases complaints must be public. Consequently, judicial proceedings in the United States are open to the public.

Access to judicial records is not absolute, and every court has supervisory power over its own records and files, so it may deny access at times. The party opposed to public access must establish both that there is a compelling interest favoring a closed file and that the protective order is drafted in the least restrictive manner possible.

One scenario in which a court may deny public access is where the court finds that a public hearing may be detrimental “to the child’s best interests.” In a dissolution of marriage case, the court may order the sealing of records of “any interview, report, investigation, or testimony.

Here, the appellate court found redacted documents that didn’t contain confidential information relating to the parties’ children’s medical care, nor otherwise support the court’s concern for the best interests of the children.

The documents also did not refer to a child of either party, and they didn’t provide sufficient information to identify any specific other child. At best, redaction merely protected R. Kelly from embarrassment, which is an impermissible basis to withhold material from the public.

In light of the strong public policy in favor of public disclosure of judicial proceedings, we therefore hold that the circuit court abused its discretion in redacting paragraphs 26-29 in the body of count II of the March 2014 motion, and the corresponding prayer for relief in count II.

The Reason article is here.

*Photo credit Andrew Steinmetz

 

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