Tulsa mayoral candidate signs Open Government Pledge, then asks court to seal his divorce case from public view

A Tulsa County special district judge Thursday sealed the divorce file of Tulsa mayoral candidate Dewey Bartlett Jr. at his request, the Tulsa World reports today.

Bartlett’s request came a day or so after FOI Oklahoma Inc. received his signed Open Government Pledge “to support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”

Note to Mr. Bartlett: Sealing court records isn’t supporting the public’s right to know.

Bartlett cited fears of identity theft as the reason for closing the case, which was filed in 2002.

Michael Bates had begun posting a small portion of the case file on his conservative blog Batesline earlier in the week. Bates told the newspaper he had redacted all the sensitive information before posting them.

Regardless, Bartlett’s argument for closure is a specious one.

As The Oklahoman reported earlier in the week during its battle with Oklahoma City officials over the release of an employee’s birth date, open government advocates nationally say the fear that releasing private information from public records will cause identity theft is unjustified. (Read related blog.)

“Those fears aren’t backed up with statistics or even anecdotal evidence showing public records are a source for identity thieves,” reporter Bryan Dean summarized.

Public records were not listed as a significant source of identity theft by the 2006 Identity Fraud Survey Report co-released by the Better Business Bureau. It said 30 percent of identity theft came from stolen wallets or purses, 15 percent from close associates such as friends and family, 9 percent from stolen mail and garbage, and 9 percent from computer hacking.

The Tulsa World reported in early August 2008 on the growing problem of Oklahoma judges closing public access to court files, estimating that judges had sealed at least one record in more than 2,300 cases statewide.

Reporter Ginnie Graham revealed that documents removed from public view included financial records of companies and hospitals, settlements in wrongful-death lawsuits, divorce proceedings, protective orders and name changes.

So why should Bartlett’s divorce case remain open to public scrutiny?

First, the public is entitled to make the most informed choice possible when selecting who will operate its government. Divorce files, like many other court records, can provide valuable information about a candidate.

For example, Bartlett said the case file included financial information not just about him but also former and current business partners. The public should know about the business dealings of its would-be elected officials. More information about candidates helps us better exercise our inherent political power.

Second, if Bartlett’s records in the public court system are closed, why not seal everyone’s files?

Because the information in those court files can help each of us make more informed life-affecting decisions. Choosing a business partner? Hiring an employee? Selecting a doctor, baby-sitter or day-care provider for your child? Concerned about your daughter’s new boyfriend? Etc.

Personal information in government-held records can help us make better decisions about the people and events most important in our lives.

Third, access to court records assures the public that everyone is treated equally in our judicial system and that decisions aren’t “based on secret bias or partiality” – as the U.S. Supreme Court said in defense of open courts.

“Closed trials breed suspicion of prejudice and arbitrariness, which in turn spawns disrespect for law,” the Court said. The same can be said for court records sealed from public view.

Bartlett told the Tulsa World he would be “glad for any member of the legitimate media to have total access” to his divorce file. If elected mayor, would he restrict access to other government documents only to the “legitimate media”? Will he be the one to decide who is a member of the "legitimate media"?

The public’s right to know belongs to the public. That means everyone, including political bloggers.

Signing the Open Pledge is a promise to support the spirit of open government – even when it inconveniences the candidate.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.