Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese on Friday denied a request to open his courtroom and any records filed in the Tom Benson mental competency case to the media and public.
Several news organizations covering the legal battle had called on Reese to reverse his earlier decision to seal the records and hold a trial in the case next week behind closed doors, saying the public had a legitimate interest in the actions and outcome of the case.
The court hearing and records are expected to contain significant information about Benson’s mental health and capacity provided by both medical professionals and lay people who have interacted with him.
An attorney for the media companies said Friday evening that they would ask the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to review Reese’s decision. They also have asked the appeals court to stop Monday’s trial. The court hadn’t responded to that request as of Friday evening.
Reese said he decided to affirm his earlier decision after weighing the right of the public to know how the owner of the Saints and the Pelicans has conducted his business affairs against Benson’s right to keep his medical information shielded from public view.
Reese said that if Benson were a plaintiff seeking damages in a case, there might be a valid argument for granting public access. Instead, he said, Benson is a defendant, who has had his health and competency called into question.
“No person in this room would want their medical records disclosed to the public,” Reese said after hearing arguments from attorneys for Benson and the media outlets. “I have no doubt.”
A rift in the twice-widowed Benson’s family was exposed in January when the billionaire announced that he was cutting off his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, from any more involvement in his business empire. Benson’s third wife, Gayle Benson, now is in line to take over her husband’s sports teams and other assets in Louisiana and Texas when he dies.
The spurned relatives responded to Benson’s actions by asking a court to find him mentally unfit to make such a decision. The family quarrel has also prompted other lawsuits in New Orleans’ federal court as well as in Texas.
Reese ordered Benson to submit to a medical evaluation in February. Three doctors evaluated him and submitted reports on Benson’s condition.
It is not unusual for judges in Louisiana to close off at least a portion of such cases from the public, legal experts have said.
The media outlets challenging Reese’s decision argued that a case involving the owner of the Saints and Pelicans is “of significant public concern” and that “the blanket closing of a trial and sealing of an entire court record violates the United States and Louisiana constitutions.”
“The fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts makes such blanket rulings overbroad,” said the motion prepared by attorneys Mary Ellen Roy and Dan Zimmerman. They said any restrictions on public access to information and proceedings that the court considers should be much more narrowly focused.
In court Friday, Roy said attorneys for both sides should redact any sensitive medical information while allowing other testimony and records to be made public.
Roy said the fact that the case will determine whether Benson is competent to run his businesses should be reason enough to open the record.
“I think the public has a compelling interest in knowing when the state does that to someone,” she said. “I think it increases the interest of the public in knowing what is going on in that courtroom. Is a fair decision being reached?”
An open record also would discourage perjury and serve as a check on the judicial system, she said.
Beyond that, she said, taxpayers have a right to know if Benson has made reasoned and rational business decisions, given that his NFL and NBA franchises have received significant investments and subsidies from the state.
But Benson attorney Phillip Wittmann said it would be impossible to simply redact the record because Benson’s medical information would be interwoven into all of the testimony and records. The observations by a lay witness, for instance, might be rebutted by a medical professional, he said.
Reese said he conducted a “balancing test,” weighing the rights of a free press against the right of individual privacy, and decided to rule on the side of the private individual.
“If Mr. Benson had brought forward a case where he was seeking damages from this court, then that would surely be a public proceeding. However, in this case, he was not,” Reese said. “He is the defendant in the case who is having his health and his volition called into question.”
The motion was filed on behalf of ESPN; WDSU-TV; Hearst Newspapers, which owns The San Antonio Express-News; and Gannett River States Publishing Corp., which owns The Lafayette Daily Advertiser, The Shreveport Times, The Alexandria Town Talk, The Monroe News-Star and The Opelousas Daily World.