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Last year, when Bruce Benson had the court records of his divorce from his former wife, Nancy, sealed, he became a member of a very elite club. Of the 36,250 couples who filed for dissolution of their marriages in Denver County District Court between 1986 and 1993, only 68 have had their files closed to the public by a judge.
There are good reasons that judges seal so few cases. As with any court document, there is a legal presumption that divorce files are part of the public record. Colorado law states that only if a person's--or couple's--privacy requirements outweigh the public good can a judge seal a court record.
Yet a review of the list of those who enjoy a court-sanctioned privacy not accorded 99.8 percent of Denver County's divorced couples hints that there might be a few unwritten rules as well.
It apparently helps, for instance, if the husband or wife requesting a sealed record is related to a judge--or, better yet, is a judge himself. Being a well-known rock star or a popular radio personality or a former editor of the state's largest newspaper couldn't hurt, either.
Holding a leadership position with the state Republican Party--or, for that matter, being a failed Republican candidate for Congress--seems to tip the scales of judges toward privacy. And if you are an annoyingly ubiquitous diamond merchant, well, you, too, could end up on the list.
But by far the best route to becoming part of the elite group of people who have convinced judges to make public records private is to speak the cant of confidentiality.
In other words, be an attorney.
As a community service for privacy-minded couples, below is a handy list of criteria for anyone who would rather their marriage-termination records be off-limits to the prying eyes of the public.
Be a Personality
This represents a paradox of legal record-sealing. The law says that in order to place an off-limits sign on a court file, a person's privacy concerns must outweigh a public interest. But it seems that the more public you are--and the greater the public's potential interest--the better chance you have of getting your files sealed.
Another example of personality-over-publicity is Charley T. Martin, who is divorced from wife Sue Ann. Martin, of course, is better known as the second half of Hal and Charley on KHOW's morning radio show. His records were sealed in 1986.
Michael Howard isn't a personality in the strictest sense of the word. But he came pretty close in 1980 when he was canned as editor of the Rocky Mountain News, despite being an heir to the paper's parent company, Scripps-Howard. Howard, who has fought personal battles with drugs and alcohol, had his divorce from wife Candice sealed in 1989.
Finally, for anybody who listens to the radio there is no bigger celebrity than gem huckster Tom Shane ("Now you have a friend in the diamond business..."). Anyone interested in learning who ended up with the diamond engagement ring in his unsuccessful marriage to Roberta Shane, however, will have to get in touch with Tom himself. Their case was sealed in 1986.
Be a Judge, or at Least Be Related to One
Although it's legally grueling to determine the real reasons judges would want to have their divorce records sealed, it is easy enough to imagine that they're petitioning a sympathetic audience for protection. It is not surprising, then, to discover that several of the list of 68 have connections to the bench.
For instance, information on Raymond Jones's 1992 divorce from wife Carolyn has been legally sealed shut. Jones is a judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals.
Also declared off-limits by a judge is the dissolution of the partnership between Debra Wilcox and Jay Finesilver. Finesilver--an attorney who entered treatment for a cocaine addiction in 1990--is the son of longtime federal district court judge Sherman Finesilver. Debra and Jay were divorced in 1991.
Be a Republican Party Bigwig
Gloria Gonzales Roemer qualified as one of these four years ago, when she carried the GOP banner in an effort to unseat Democrat Pat Schroeder from her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Roemer was unsuccessful, winning only 36 percent of the vote.
She and oilman husband Lamar had better luck, however, in convincing a judge to place their divorce file in the "no-access" pile. They split in 1993.
The Republican specimens of the hour, of course, are Bruce and Nancy Benson. When the Bensons had their divorce sealed in 1992, Bruce was in his fifth year as chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. He served in that capacity through 1993.
Benson's replacement as head of the state GOP was Don Bain. Like Benson, Bain is divorced. He split from his wife, Mary, in 1990.
Unlike Benson, Bain's divorce file remains sealed.
Own Lots of Pricey Real Estate, Particularly Around DIA
Like L.C. Fulenwider III. Scion of Denver land barons, Fulenwider, who has developed property in Denver's exclusive Polo Club and Cherry Hills neighborhoods, made out particularly well when the decision was made to build Denver's new airport, where he also owns land. Three years ago he and wife Dawn divorced--and successfully convinced a judge to seal the evidence.
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.