Judge opens sheriff-elect Mark Garber’s 2013 divorce suit, says public has ‘constitutional right’ to see court records _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Mark Garber, candidate for Lafayette Parish Sheriff, responds to a question during a forum held for the candidates on Thursday at the Public Safety Complex on Willow st.

A state district judge in Lafayette has unsealed divorce papers filed in 2013 by Sheriff-elect Mark Garber and his wife, overturning another judge’s decision that closed public access to the files for more than two years.

Judge David Blanchet ruled that the 2013 documents — two petitions for divorce, one filed by Garber and the other by his wife, Rachel — do not contain the degree of sensitive personal information that warrants shutting off public access.

In opening up the files, Blanchet overturned former Family Court Judge Susan Theall’s order that in 2013 sealed the Garbers’ records.

Blanchet wrote that the guiding legal direction in the Garber case was mapped by the Louisiana Supreme Court in a 2007 decision regarding a high-profile divorce case in New Orleans.

“The Supreme Court’s Ruling … makes it clear that records in divorce proceedings are not exempt from the public’s constitutional right of access to court proceedings and documents but that the court must engage in a balancing act,” Blanchet wrote.

Mark and Rachel Garber later had their petitions for divorce dismissed, but the files remained sealed.

Then in December, after Mark Garber won an election for Lafayette Parish sheriff, his wife again filed divorce papers in 15th District Court in Lafayette.

As in the 2013 filings, the Garbers sought to have the latest divorce documents sealed. And for a couple of days in December, the files were off limits to the public — the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court’s Office claimed a judge had ordered the case closed to public view. But Blanchet stepped in and said neither he nor any other judge had issued an order to close the case file, and it was reopened.

But the 2013 divorce suit remained sealed until this month.

Blanchet’s decision to unseal the 2013 file came after the judge considered a request from Lafayette Parish resident Troyce Wayne Thorla, who said the public should be able to view the file.

Thorla, who filed the request before the sheriff’s election in November, also claimed there was an incriminating video contained in the 2013 divorce case file that also should be opened. Thorla said the video could contradict the family-friendly image Garber was portraying in his campaign for sheriff.

Garber in court papers said there is no such video. And at a Feb. 25 hearing, Thorla came up short in convincing Blanchet that such a video existed.

“(Thorla) introduced no evidence nor provided any testimony to support this allegation,” Blanchet wrote in a ruling March 2. “Thorla also admitted that the allegations contained in his motion were based upon ‘hearsay.’ When asked from whom he obtained the hearsay, his response was, ‘Several people, several acquaintances.’ ”

But Blanchet ruled that Thorla’s request to open up the 2013 documents to public view did have merit. The case was unsealed last week after information about the couple’s children and other personal details were blacked out.

Reached Monday, Mark Garber said he had no comment.

Follow Billy Gunn on Twitter, @BillyGunnAcad