Cook County, Ill., judges have hidden hundreds of court files from public view since 2000, some without reason or proper justification, according to a published report Sunday.
Several of the sealed files involved well-known Chicago residents and institutions, including a chef, businessmen, the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Chicago Cubs, according to a story in Sunday editions of the Chicago Tribune.
The newspaper’s findings run contrary to Illinois case law, which says public documents shouldn’t be sealed. In several cases, judges failed to provide their rationale for sealing files and hid entire files instead of removing sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, that would have otherwise made the files public.
The Tribune looked at dozens of previously sealed files. Its analysis found that 166 of the 436 cases remained sealed as of July 1. In nearly 100 cases, both the plaintiffs’ and the defendants’ identities also remained secret.
The newspaper’s findings also showed that information concerning well-connected individuals has been protected.
Award-winning chef Laurent Gras, who opened L20 in Chicago, sued the driver in a 2008 bike collision that injured Gras. Gras filed a complaint under a pseudonym asked that the file be kept sealed. Judge William Maddux granted the request, and didn’t give a reason in his written order.
The file was unsealed in 2009 by another judge who found that there “was no lawful basis to suppress the entire court file.”
Maddux defended his action.
“I don’t seal just anything. My own perspective, attitude is, it’s a public document, a public record, and there has to be a really good reason to seal the file,” he said.
Some of the other formerly sealed cases involved judges.
Elliot Muse, then a Cook County judge, sued lawyer Adam Bourgeois Jr., in 1998 for allegedly failing to pay more than $15,000 in rent. Months after Bourgeois became a Cook County judge, the case was sealed with no reason for the order.
It was signed by then Judge Wayne Rhine, who didn’t request the sealing but said he had no problem signing it.
“I didn’t want two sitting judges hanging out their dirty laundry,” Rhine told the Tribune.
State law authorizes the sealing of files involving children, the mentally ill and whistleblowers. In other cases, judges are largely left on their own to determine whether to hide a public file.
The volume of sealed cases in Cook County has prompted criticism from at least one watchdog group.
“These cases go to the integrity of the courts system, said Arthur Bryant, who’s the executive director of Washington, D.C-based Public Justice. The group fights for openness in courts.
“It is hard to have a democratic system, or one that works to make sure the law is just and the courts are fair, if what happens in the courts is secret.”
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