In lawsuits such as the one in New Orleans involving questions about Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson’s mental capacity, it’s not uncommon for the courtroom to be closed to the public for at least some of the proceedings. But Benson’s lawyers apparently don’t want to take any chances.
They filed a motion Monday asking Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese to close all preliminary hearings and any trial that may occur in the ongoing dispute between the billionaire and his daughter and her children.
They also filed a request “to exclude” Benson’s testimony.
It was not immediately clear whether they are seeking to bar future testimony or merely to exclude past or future testimony by Benson from the case record, which has been under seal since April 23.
Because of the gag order, neither Benson’s attorneys nor those representing the relatives with whom he’s spent the last several months feuding would comment on the two motions Monday. The seal also prevented the release of the memos supporting the motions, though general descriptions of them were available in the court’s electronic docket system.
Baton Rouge lawyer Linda Melancon, an estate planning and administration specialist, said it wouldn’t surprise her if Reese agrees to keep the public out of the courtroom both before and during a trial. Taking such a decision is well within Reese’s discretion, she said, and Benson is a high-profile litigant who might warrant such treatment.
“There’s (protecting) medical information — information about (mental) capacity or lack of capacity — to consider,” Melancon said.
As for the motion regarding Benson’s testimony, Melancon said the businessman would have to be present for hearings related to the lawsuit “unless there’s good cause shown.” The law also permits Reese to summon and question any witnesses neither side in the suit intends to call, including Benson himself.
If the request is to keep Benson from testifying in court, it’s “kind of unusual,” said Melancon, who noted the Saints and Pelicans owner is the person best positioned to convince Reese his mental state is fine.
The motions filed Monday followed what seemed to be the scheduling of depositions with two women who appear to be nurses: Takiyah Daniels and Susan Badeaux.
State records show Daniels has been a registered nurse since 2010. There are three women named Susan Badeaux who are or have been licensed nurses in Louisiana, records show.
The family dispute landed in Reese’s courtroom after Benson revealed in January that he was cutting daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Ryan and Rita LeBlanc off from any future role in his business empire. Benson’s third wife, Gayle Benson, is now in line to inherit his sports teams and other businesses in New Orleans and Texas.
The jilted relatives countered by seeking to have him declared mentally unfit to make such decisions. There also are separate civil actions in other courts in New Orleans and Texas.
Reese ordered Benson, 87, to undergo an evaluation by doctors in February. Three physicians completed their tests in March and spent 19 days writing their reports on Benson’s condition.
Reese set a June 1 hearing in the case after receiving those reports. He said he decided to seal the case file to shield sensitive information about Benson’s physical and mental health from public scrutiny.
UPDATE, Tuesday, May 5, 2015, 3:37 p.m.: Later Monday, after this story was published, lawyers for Renee Benson and her children filed a motion asking Judge Reese to permit them to call Tom Benson as a witness. If Benson isn’t available to testify, the motion requested that Reese invoke the “missing witness presumption,” or consider whether the Saints and Pelicans owner’s lawyers are holding back evidence that is key to the case.