Why unseal the Ryan divorce papers?

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June 23 2004 6:05 PM

Why Unseal Ryan's Divorce Papers?

Neither Jack nor Jeri wanted them unsealed. What gives?

Records from the 1999 divorce of Illinois Senate candidate Jack Ryan were unsealed Monday, and the revelations contained therein are spooking some of his supporters. The documents contain allegations from his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, that her then-husband had a predilection for taking her to raunchy sex clubs. Both Ryans opposed the unsealing of the divorce records. Why was the court permitted to overrule their wishes?

Because the First Amendment rights of media organizations generally supercede the privacy rights of litigants, since the American legal system favors transparency in all court proceedings. In the Ryan case, the Chicago Tribune and a Chicago TV station sued in Los Angeles (where the divorce proceedings took place) to unseal the records. In keeping with prior rulings nationwide, the court concluded that the public's right of access outweighed whatever emotional distress the unsealing might cause.

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To keep divorce records sealed, a defendant must prove that the release of the documents would cause objective harm to a concerned party, typically a juvenile. Indeed, the Ryans argued that salacious details of their case would damage their 9-year-old son. But the court ultimately concluded that only some of the documents contained information that might damage the child's psyche and unsealed the rest. Unfortunately for Ryan's campaign, the courts don't construe the disclosure of embarrassing sexual quirks as innately harmful.

This is hardly the first time that a politician has tried to prevent a media outlet from digging into his matrimonial secrets. One of the most famous was 1992's In re Keene Sentinel, in which a New Hampshire newspaper sued to unseal the divorce records of former Rep. Chuck Douglas. The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that "there is a presumption that court records are public," and that it was up to Douglas prove "with specificity" how the unsealing of the records would cause him harm.

The Ryans' records might never have been sealed at all if not for an unbalanced Trekkie named Marlon Pagtakhan. When Jack Ryan initially asked the court to seal the divorce records in 1999, the judge denied his request. But a year later, Pagtakhan was arrested for stalking Mrs. Ryan, who was then playing the buxom Seven of Nine  on the TV show Star Trek: Voyager. In hundreds of sexually explicit e-mails, he made graphic threats against the actress's family. (Pagtakhan was sentenced to five years of probation in 2001.) The stalking was enough to convince the judge that the Ryans' information should be sealed, lest some private details fall into the hands of other deranged fans.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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