The latest chapter of Tom Benson’s legal saga played out Thursday behind a veil of secrecy that was extraordinary even by the standards of a case that already has taken place mostly out of public view.
Reporters covering an appeals court hearing in a lawsuit questioning whether the owner of the Saints and Pelicans is still mentally competent to run his business empire were not only shut out of the courtroom itself but were escorted from the building that houses the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in the French Quarter. They were not allowed back inside while the hearing was going on, even though other members of the public apparently could come and go.
The lawsuit filed by Benson’s estranged relatives, who argue his mental health had badly deteriorated by the time he cut them out of his succession plans last year, already has been mostly shielded from scrutiny. The initial trial, which was decided in Benson’s favor, played out in a closed courtroom, and the only direct questioning that he has faced was by a judge who visited the Saints and Pelicans headquarters in Metairie.
But the security measures at Thursday’s hearing were unusual. Scott Sternberg, an attorney for the Louisiana Press Association, called it “extraordinary” that the media would be barred from entering a courthouse, especially while other members of the public were allowed in.
“I don’t know if the people who are enforcing this rule could’ve determined who was part of the media and who was not, especially today, with bloggers and folks who have access to thousands of Twitter followers,” Sternberg said. “And I think allowing the general public to go into the courthouse and not the media was not the judges’ intent — it probably was just to keep the hoopla out of the courthouse.”
Neither Chief Appellate Judge James McKay nor Clerk of Court Justin Woods responded to requests for comment.
Benson’s lead attorney, Phil Wittmann, said neither side in the case asked for the order to close the courthouse to the media.
Thursday’s hearing came almost exactly a year after Benson announced that upon his death, he would leave control of his businesses to his third wife, Gayle.
Cut off were his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. They argue that Tom Benson, 88, was being manipulated by others into severing ties with them while his physical and mental health had deteriorated.
The case went to trial in front of Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese in June. Reese privately questioned Benson during the case and heard testimony from three physicians about Benson’s health.
But Benson did not take the witness stand during the trial and was not questioned ahead of it by anyone other than Reese, who ruled in Benson’s favor.
That decision prompted an appeal from his relatives, who argue that their attorneys should have had the chance to question the family patriarch before a ruling was rendered.
The judges who will decide that question at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal are Dennis Bagneris, Terri Love and Max Tobias.
Wittmann said Thursday that the judges asked what the psychiatrists involved in the case had said about their findings regarding Benson. They also asked about the legal principles relating to Benson’s decision not to testify at the trial this summer, he said.
The relatives’ lead attorney in New Orleans, Randy Smith, said he preferred not to get into the specifics of the hearing out of respect for the judges’ seal order, but he said, “As everybody knows, we’ve asked the court to send the case back for a retrial with proper procedures and not allow the original decision to stand.”
Each side expects a ruling within a month. Tom Benson, Renee Benson and the LeBlanc siblings all attended the hearing Thursday.
Two other cases related to the family dispute are pending in New Orleans federal court and in probate court in San Antonio, where Tom Benson also owns businesses.
Benson is scheduled to be privately questioned in San Antonio on Monday in the case there, a Texas attorney involved in that dispute confirmed.