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Cook Cty domestic relations judges give privacy perks to wealthy?

Cook Cty domestic relations judges give privacy perks to wealthy?

The Chicago Tribune released a blockbuster this week when it documented in an extensive article that Cook County Domestic Relations Division judges have been allowing the wealthy and influential to file divorce, child custody, parentage and other domestic cases using only their initials -- or agreeing to seal such cases altogether.

Even though divorce and domestic relations cases often involve highly personal family issues and financial disclosures, both Illinois and U.S. law isn't meant to work that way. Under our judicial system, the strong expectation that all court proceedings are matters of public record. Juvenile delinquency proceedings are generally confidential, but otherwise people of all stations in life are subject to the same rule.

"If you avail yourself of the court system, you have to pay the price of it being public," the president of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers explained to the Tribune. "If we start making exceptions for the rich and famous, it creates a dual court system, which goes against our populist belief of what a court should be, which is really justice for all without distinguishing between the rich and poor."

In direct opposition to that tradition, it seems that Cook County judges have been obscuring and sealing family law cases for lawmakers, billionaires, other judges and a variety of other influential people, and they’ve been doing it surprisingly routinely.

While obviously there are procedures to allow the obfuscation of party names and sealing of records, they are not meant to be used merely to protect the parties’ privacy or prevent embarrassment. In general, case files are only sealed to protect the identities of minors and people considered incompetent.

The Tribune wasn’t able to find many judges willing to explain or reconsider their decisions to seal files. One, however, admitted that he had been wrong to seal a divorce file in order to protect a wealthy divorcing couple’s private financial information. Any such information could easily have been summarized and then removed from the public file, he admitted.

One particularly frustrating aspect of the practice is that there are perfectly legal ways people can keep their information out of the public record -- not try their cases in the public courts. Using divorce mediation or the collaborative law process to negotiate a divorce agreement already has that result.

Source: Chicago Tribune, "Divorce court weds power and privacy," Cynthia Dizikes and Todd Lighty, April 28, 2013

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