Cynthia Dizikes and Todd Lighty discuss their investigative story on how Cook County judges seal cases, including those involving a fellow judge, rich Chicago families, and a prominent Chicago athlete. (Posted Feb. 24, 2013)

A Northwestern University student filed a lawsuit against the school in 2008, alleging top administrators failed to discipline a student who raped her.

But what happened in the case is a secret.

The student's complaint, filed under a pseudonym to protect her identity, was sealed shortly after it was filed in Cook County Circuit Court. Northwestern University says the student had the case sealed. The student's lawyer says that's not true.

The court order sealing the file that could clear that up? That's a secret too.

The Northwestern University legal dispute is one of 163 cases in the Chancery Division that judges have hidden from the public, according to a Tribune analysis of cases sealed since January 2000. Chancery judges handle various legal matters, including contract disputes, mortgage foreclosures and big-money class-action lawsuits.

State law allows some legal battles to be filed under seal, such as whistle-blower lawsuits. But the Tribune found chancery judges also have sealed cases for a fellow judge, the Wrigley family and a former Chicago Bulls basketball player.

Legal experts said public access to courts is a fundamental right, and that only in the rarest of instances — such as matters involving national security — should entire case files be secret.

If a file is sealed, the order sealing it should remain public and spell out why the judge took the extraordinary step to hide a case, said Scott Drazewski, a McLean County judge who last year spoke about court access at a Chicago educational conference for judges.

Drazewski and others pointed to a 2004 Illinois Appellate Court case involving the billionaire Pritzker family, which found that orders are "public documents and should not be kept under seal."

"The judge needs to go ahead and make specific (public) findings to seal a case because courtrooms and the files within them belong to the public," Drazewski said.

"Sometimes you'll get these attorneys who get together and a file will be sealed because nobody objects," he said, adding he was not speaking specifically about Cook County. "That's not a basis for sealing a file. It should not be rubber-stamped just because somebody asks."

The Tribune reported last fall that Cook County judges in the Law Division had sealed hundreds of cases since 2000, including disputes involving a famous chef, other judges and millionaire businessmen. The types of suits filed in the Law Division include allegations of wrongful death, defective consumer products and medical malpractice.

The Tribune also found that judges in the Law Division sometimes failed to give a reason in their written orders for sealing files and hid entire files when they needed only to remove sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers or home addresses.

The Tribune this year requested to see 126 sealing orders by 55 judges and former judges in the Law and Chancery divisions.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the presiding judges of those two divisions declined to provide the orders, instead telling the Tribune to get a lawyer to file motions to intervene in each case.

Evans, in an interview last week, said the Illinois Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that the public's right to access records is not absolute. "Whether the particular order is a public order, in the sense that the public would have access to it, is something that is reviewed on a case-by-case basis," he said.

But Mike Rathsack, a veteran Illinois appellate lawyer, said requiring an individual to hire a lawyer to see a court order imposes an unfair burden on the public, adding that court secrecy fosters mistrust.

"I hate to disagree with three presiding judges, but allowing public access to the order sealing a court file should not be a burden to anyone," Rathsack said. "The order can be and presumably is drafted so that any of the actual matters that are sensitive are not set out in the order.

"After all," he said, "an order sealing a case involving Coke's secret formula does not itself reveal that formula."