OFF THE RECORD

WHOSE DIVORCE RECORDS ARE SEALED? READ ALL ABOUT IT.

Gary Antonoff, formerly of Antonoff Miller Properties, also has owned land around DIA. He and wife Carol toured Splitsville in 1991. Legal records of the event, however, have been declared by a judge to be off-limits.

Although she hasn't cashed in on DIA, Denice Reich is a millionaire Cherry Hills property baroness. Reich, who won sympathy from wealthy people everywhere by filing a lawsuit against her nanny several years ago, divorced husband Marshall (who she claimed battered her) in 1989. The dissolution records are closed.

Go to Law School
The simplest way to guarantee privacy during a nasty split is to put in some time at law school. A little more than one third of the files sealed in the past eight years belong to lawyers. (To be completely fair, two attorneys have been divorced twice each--and files from all four cases are sealed.)

When asked why attorneys might need special protection from public scrutiny, several lawyers specializing in domestic cases hypothesized that the nature of their work requires a shield in front of their private missteps. One attorney speculated that because her colleagues work in a profession that is by definition adversarial, they might require judicial assistance in preventing unscrupulous legal opponents from snooping for dirt.

Of course, this puts some attorneys in a bit of a bind. After all, lawyers who specialize in the First Amendment constantly find themselves arguing in favor of the public's right to know and against the government's tendency toward secrecy. Lawyers, say, like Thomas Kelley, a free-speech and open-records advocate for the Colorado Press Association.

Kelley had his divorce files sealed by a judge in 1987, when his marriage with wife Darcy ended.

And again three years later, when he and wife Gail dissolved their domestic partnership.

Why any of these records were sealed is anybody's guess. According to attorneys who specialize in domestic law, the most common reason for a couple to go private is financial. Corporate bigwigs or executives in a competitive business don't want their balance sheets available to any rival who happens to pass by the courthouse.

That said, it's difficult to believe that so many attorneys have so much proprietary financial information in their checkbooks. Yet a legal catch-22 prevents the public from knowing whether a judge has acted appropriately or has merely helped a colleague.

True, judges must justify their reasoning when they seal a file, in a public document called an "order of limitation." Unfortunately, once a judge makes the decision to seal the case, the order of limitation itself becomes part of the file--and thus sealed and unavailable for review. (Making it even more difficult to check a judge's record is the fact that administrators say they don't keep figures on how many requests to seal a case a judge has refused.)

Moreover, after a judge closes a case, it is very difficult to reverse that decision. That's because, initially, the divorcing couple bears the burden of explaining why their records should be one of the .02 percent of divorce files kept private. Once the case has been sealed, the law assumes the judge was right. As a result, if somebody wants to review the closed file, he must now argue why it shouldn't be kept sealed.

That's what happened when lawyers for KUSA Channel 9 recently sued to open Benson's divorce case to public inspection; they argued that a political candidate's past is public, and won.

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