Lafayette sheriff candidates debate shifting focus of office more toward enforcement _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Sheriff candidate Mark Garber.

A 15th District judge on Wednesday shut off access to files in Rachel Garber’s divorce proceedings against her husband, Sheriff-elect Mark Garber, sealing records the Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled in another case should remain public regardless of the status of those involved.

The reasons for quickly sealing the court case — Rachel Garber filed for divorce on Monday — were unclear. Also unclear is which judge signed the papers that instructed the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court’s Office to seal the case file.

“I didn’t ask for it to be sealed,” Mark Garber said Wednesday. Garber said his wife told him she would request that the case be sealed. Rachel Garber’s attorney, Richard Mere, did not return a call Wednesday.

Garber said there is nothing salacious in his wife’s petition and no claims of child or spousal abuse. He also offered a private viewing of the document and defended the closure of the court files.

“It’s something you do if you’re an assistant DA or the sheriff or something like that, if you’re a public figure,” said Garber, a former prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office who won a hard-fought election for sheriff last month. He takes office in July.

The filing this week is the third divorce petition involving the Garbers since 2013. That year, Mark Garber sought a divorce from his wife before she filed for one against him. Both 2013 cases, which did not result in divorce, also were sealed, though it’s unclear when.

“Please understand, sealing a file is not political favoritism. You don’t have to be anybody special to have your file sealed, that I’m aware of,” Mark Garber said.

The Garbers’ latest divorce case was allotted to Judge Charlie Fitzgerald, who took office in January and handles family court matters. Fitzgerald, however, recused himself from the case. His office said Wednesday that Fitzgerald did not sign papers to seal the file.

The case is now in Judge David Blanchet’s court. Blanchet’s office said he has been in court this week in the other 15th District parishes of Acadia and Vermilion. Blanchet did not return a call to The Acadiana Advocate.

The Louisiana Supreme Court, in a 2007 decision, wrote “the public has a constitutional right to access court records,” and that claims by those involved “of mere annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense is not enough to overcome the public’s right of access to public records.”

The 2007 opinion came in a bitter divorce between Popeyes and Copeland’s restaurants founder Al Copeland and his wife, Jennifer, both of whom sought to have the case files sealed. A St. Tammany Parish district court judge followed the Copelands’ wishes and sealed the entire case. Following a court challenge by The Times-Picayune newspaper, a state appellate court agreed with the district judge and ruled the case would remained cloaked in secrecy.

The state Supreme Court had other views.

Associate Justice Jeffery Victory wrote that “Louisiana has a constitutional open courts provision and a constitutional public records provision” and that no state laws excludes “divorce proceedings from either provision.”

Justice Burnette Johnson wrote that Al Copeland was a “public figure, subject to public scrutiny.

“Unfortunately, the former Mrs. Copeland, by her marriage to a public figure, is subject to the same public scrutiny of their private affairs,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson also said “spouses’ privacy interests do not outweigh the strong fundamental right of the public to access the court’s records.”