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Courts keeping cases secret

Oklahoman Published: August 11, 2008
TULSA -- Thousands of Oklahoma court cases and documents are being sealed by district court judges and are not available to the public, according to a published report.

More than 2,300 cases statewide have received a judge's order to seal at least one record in the file, according to a Tulsa World analysis going back to 2003. The sealed records include financial records of companies and hospitals, settlements in wrongful-death lawsuits, divorce proceedings, protective orders and name changes.

These records are added to a growing list of nonpublic court information, including that generated in drug courts, mental health courts and juvenile proceedings.

Joey Senat, past president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, said he was surprised by the amount of sealed records.

"I had heard of this going on in other states, but I'm really disappointed this is happening to the courts in our state," Senat said. "This is a real indication there are two systems one for the rich and powerful and one for the rest of us. The public has been left out of this process."

The Tulsa World requested information from the state's 77 court clerks to review the types of records and cases sealed by judicial orders since 2003.

Court Clerks Sally Howe Smith of Tulsa County, Patricia Presley of Oklahoma County and Sue Wells of Wagoner County were the only clerks able to provide lists of case numbers for analysis.

Between 2003 and 2007, Tulsa County had 204 cases with orders to seal at least one record in them. Oklahoma County had 292 such cases, and Wagoner County had two.

District Judge Gordon McAllister tops the list of Tulsa County judges who have issued orders to seal documents or cases most often, with 20 such cases. He said he doesn't make the decisions lightly and often denies attorneys' requests to do so.

Of the cases in which McAllister approved sealing a document, seven involve a hospital or nursing home as a defendant and five involve a breach of contract or agreement with a private company.

"I try to discourage attorneys if the only purpose is that their client paid a settlement and is trying to keep it from the media.

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