Voters reject judge who received Black Hole award

An appointed Oklahoma County judge who had closed a billionaire's divorce trial to the public in 214 lost last week in his first time on a ballot. Howard R. Haralson's decisions in child-custody cases also had received public protests.

On Tuesday, Haralson placed second to attorney Amy Palumbo in the race for the District 7, Office 3, judgeship covering western Oklahoma County. Palumbo received 29,268 votes (65 percent) to Haralson's 8,217 (18 percent). Attorney Mark Bailey received 7,424 (17 percent).

Haralson, 61, will serve in the position until the end of the year. Gov. Mary Fallin had appointed him to the judgeship in May 2017 to fill the vacancy created by Judge Donald Deason's death.

In 2014 as an appointed special judge, Haralson had excluded the general public and press from all but three days of Oklahoma oil magnate Harold Hamm's 10-week divorce trial. Haralson also sealed – without a hearing or issuing written orders – practically every document, including trial transcripts.

Haralson's actions received FOI Oklahoma's Black Hole recognition and criticism from Oklahoma Supreme Court justices

On the first day of the divorce trial, Haralson closed the courtroom to everyone who had not signed confidentiality agreements, The Oklahoman reported at the time.

The newspaper reported that Haralson expressed concern that disclosure of confidential information could harm Continental Resources Inc. Hamm, one of America’s wealthiest men, is chairman and majority shareholder of the publicly traded company.

British news agency Reuters reported that Hamm rewrote the company’s history behind the closed doors of the courtroom – a move intended to stave off a divorce payout of nearly $1 billion, one of the largest in U.S. history.

In a motion to force Haralson to open the courtroom, Reuters argued that the civil trial directly concerned “one of the most significant, publicly traded companies in the U.S. oil market, the leadership role, achievements and stake of its founder and majority owner, and one of the wealthiest, most influential and politically active businesspersons in the country.”

Haralson gave no compelling reason for why the courtroom should be closed, thereby ignoring the public’s First Amendment and common law rights of access to trials.

He also ignored the state Open Records Act's then-newly enacted required protocols for sealing court documents. The statute prohibits a judge from sealing court records unless a compelling privacy interest outweighs the public interest in the record. The judge also must use the least restrictive means of achieving confidentiality so that "only the portions of the record subject to confidentiality are sealed and the remainder of the record is kept open." (Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 24A.30)

Two state Supreme Court justices criticized Haralson for ignoring the state Open Records Act.

“The law allowing a record to be sealed is clear, concise and quite simple,” Justice Steven W. Taylor wrote. “The trial court cannot avoid the Oklahoma Open Records Act by simply relying on the parties’ agreement to seal the record. … All of the statutory requirements … must be strictly followed at the time the records are sealed even if there is no objection to the sealing.” (Reuters America LLC v. Haralson, No. 113,296 (Okla. Jan. 6, 2015) (Taylor, J., concurring ¶ 2) (quoting Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 24A.30).

Justice Noma Gurich emphasized that records filed in a divorce case “are always presumed to be public records.” She noted that Haralson had not made “a specific determination, as required by law, that the withholding of most, if not all, of the records in this case is necessary in the interest of justice. Imposition of an almost total denial of access to the records in the case through an agreement by the parties cannot be justified.” Id. (Gurich, J., dissenting ¶ 4) (emphasis included)

The Hamm divorce case was not the only time Haralson received public criticism for his decision-making as a judge. His appointment as district judge drew outrage from a mother whose 6-year-old daughter had been sent by Haralson to live in California with her father, a registered sex offender convicted of molesting another 6-year-old girl, his step-daughter. Other families said Haralson's decisions had put their children in dangerous situations.

In 2015, the state Supreme Court overturned his decision in a child custody case involving a same-sex couple. Haralson had dismissed Charlene Ramey's request for custody of her son after she and her partner, Kimberly Sutton, separated. He ruled that she had no standing in the case.

“When the parent and step-parent separate or divorce there is no statutory provision for the step-parent to remain a part of the child's life,” Haralson wrote. “What about a nanny who has more interaction with a child than the parents, will the nanny be able to assert rights to the child?”  (Haralson -- Order of Dismissal, at 6, Ramey v. Sutton, No. FD-2014-4374 (Okla. Cty. Dist. Ct. March 5, 2015).

In contrast, the state Supreme Court ruled that Ramey had standing to seek a hearing on the best interests of the son, saying she was "not a mere ‘third party' like a nanny, friend or relative, as suggested by the district court."

“On the contrary, Ramey has been intimately involved in the conception, birth and parenting of their child, at the request and invitation of Sutton," Justice Joseph Watt wrote. "Ramey has stood in the most sacred role as parent to their child and always been referred to as ‘Mom' by their child. The community, school, medical providers and extended family have all known Ramey as the ‘other parent,' all with the knowledge and mutual agreement of Sutton.”  (Ramey v. Sutton, 2015 OK 79, ¶ 16).



Joey Senat, Ph.D. Associate Professor OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma

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