Why unseal the Ryan divorce papers?

Answers to your questions about the news.
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.


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.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Sept. 30 2014 9:32 AM Why Are Mint Condition Comic Books So Expensive?
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.