Dealing a blow to the U.S. Senate candidacy of Republican Jack Ryan, a California judge ruled that several sealed divorce records likely to embarrass the candidate and his ex-wife should be opened to the public.
Ruling on a request brought by attorneys for the Tribune and WLS-TV, Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider acknowledged that the resulting publicity from the disclosure would be harmful to the couple's son, a key argument Ryan had raised in seeking to keep the documents from public view.
But Schnider said he had weighed the public interest of disclosure against the private interests of the Ryans and their child. "In the end," Schnider found, "the balance tips slightly to the public.
"They were aware they were in a public court system and protection from embarrassment cannot be a basis for keeping from the public what's put in public courts," said Schnider, referring to Ryan and his ex-wife, actress Jeri Lynn Ryan. Additionally, Schnider said, "the openness of court files must be maintained, so that the public ... can be assured that there is no favoritism shown to the rich and the powerful."
Schnider ruled that allegations the Ryans made against each other in their 1999 divorce would be released, though documents directly pertaining to the welfare of the couple's 9-year-old son would remain under seal. He acknowledged that in approving the release of the documents, "the nature of publicity generated will become known to the child and have a deleterious effect on the child."
The judge did not elaborate on the nature of the allegations.
The case files are to be publicly released on June 29, Schnider ruled. Attorneys for Ryan, the wealthy investment banker turned teacher who won the March Republican Senate primary, and for his former wife said they had to consult with their clients before commenting on whether they would appeal. Jeri Ryan has starred in such television shows as "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Boston Public."
In a statement issued late Thursday, Ryan said, "Nothing is more important to me than our son. Jeri Lynn and I are weighing our options--with our son's best interests, and only our son's best interests, in mind."
Ryan is facing Democrat Barack Obama for the Senate seat being vacated by one-term Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
In recent days, Ryan had begun warning leading Republicans that he expected embarrassing information about him would be contained in documents that the judge ordered released, sources close to Ryan's campaign said. Yet, Ryan also said he believed that he could weather any disclosures, the sources said.
Those warnings were in sharp contrast to statements made during his successful Republican primary campaign against seven opponents. Shortly before the March election, when he was asked by reporters whether the GOP should be worried about anything under seal in the divorce file, Ryan replied: "I don't think so. I've been very open about everything that voters could possibly have interest in."
But about six weeks ago, Ryan told a small gathering of leading Republicans that while 95 percent of the contents of the divorce file did not threaten his campaign, the remaining 5 percent could cause problems, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Instead of placating the GOP leaders, who have expressed continued concern since his primary victory over how the divorce-file issue has dogged his candidacy, the sources said, Ryan's comments raised new questions about the viability of his campaign.
That prompted them to request legal advice from the Republican National Committee about whether the state Republican Party had the authority to replace Ryan on the fall ticket if he was too politically wounded and decided to withdraw. The sources said the national party advised that the state central committee does have the power to fill such a vacancy. Attempts to contact attorneys familiar with the request were unsuccessful.
Earlier this week, Ryan said at a news conference that the release of documents would create "no problems for the campaign. Would there be something that might be embarrassing to me? Maybe. But that's not the criteria by which I'm judging the release of those documents."
No hint at contents
In his conversations with Republican leaders, Ryan has never elaborated on what might be in the files, sources said. But they said Ryan expressed confidence that he could withstand any fallout.
The issue of Ryan's divorce gained increasing attention near the end of the primary largely due to widespread negative publicity that engulfed the campaign of one of the Democrats seeking his party's Senate nomination, multimillionaire Blair Hull.
Hull also had been divorced and obtained an order to seal the case file. However, disclosures that Hull's ex-wife had once obtained an order of protection against him prompted calls for the candidate to release the file to determine what accusations had been made against him. After initial resistance, he allowed the release.
The file showed that his ex-wife had accused him of having a violent temper and once striking her. The resulting publicity and his response to it led to a quick collapse of his campaign.
Ryan, however, won his primary despite a late round of rumors and innuendoes about what was in the file as well as controversial accusations leveled by a rival's campaign manager who claimed he saw copies of the sealed divorce documents.
Portions of the Ryans' divorce records were placed under seal by Schnider in the fall of 2001.
Earlier, Schnider had rejected a similar request, suggesting that Ryan sought to seal the files because they might prove embarrassing. Jeri Ryan's attorneys had fought the initial request to seal the records, contending that "the case doesn't have anything to do with [Jack Ryan's] political career."
Stalking changed order
Schnider ultimately changed his mind and sealed the records after a man was convicted of stalking Jeri Ryan.
In the current case, Jeri Ryan has joined her ex-husband in opposing the release.
Michael Martinez reported from Los Angeles and Rick Pearson from Chicago. Tribune staff reporters Liam Ford and John Chase also contributed to this report.