Various media organizations covering the legal battle pitting Tom Benson against his daughter and grandchildren are challenging a New Orleans judge’s decisions to seal records and hold a June 1 trial in the case behind closed doors.
In a motion filed Thursday, the media outlets argue that a case involving the owner of the New Orleans 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,” says the motion prepared by attorneys Mary Ellen Roy and Dan Zimmerman, of the Phelps Dunbar law firm. They said any restrictions on public access to information and proceedings that the court considers should be much more narrowly focused.
The motion targets rulings made by Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, who is presiding over a lawsuit in which relatives with whom Benson has severed ties question whether the 87-year-old billionaire is mentally fit enough to make major business decisions on his own.
At the request of Benson’s attorneys, Reese sealed from public view all documents filed in the case after April 23, and he followed that up with an announcement that his courtroom would be closed to outsiders for the duration of the trial set to begin next week.
Reese said he made his decisions to protect Benson’s medical privacy. It is not unusual for judges to close off at least a portion of such cases in Louisiana, legal experts have said.
A rift in the twice-widowed Benson’s family became publicly known after he announced in January 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, is now in line to take over her husband’s sports teams and other assets in Louisiana and Texas when he dies.
In reaction, Benson’s spurned relatives are seeking to have him found mentally unfit to take that course of action. The family quarrel also has 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 finished evaluating Benson in March and submitted reports to Reese on his condition.
Thursday’s 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.
The companies lodged accompanying motions asking that they be allowed to intervene in the matter and that the parties in the case be forced to demonstrate why the courtroom and filings should remain sealed.
A hearing was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Friday in Reese’s court.