How clout keeps court cases secret
Cook County judges routinely have hidden hundreds of cases from public view since 2000, sealing lawsuits involving a famous chef, millionaire businessmen and even other judges
Pat Kelly, file storage manager in the clerk’s office of the Cook County Circuit Court, looks through a file in a room known as the vault, an area on the eighth floor of the Daley Center where sealed court documents are stored. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / September 20, 2012)
Within its walls reside files that Cook County Circuit Court judges have ordered hidden from the public, something they have done hundreds of times since 2000.
Although state law requires that certain types of lawsuits must be sealed, a Tribune investigation has found that judges improperly removed others from public view, including cases involving a famous chef, millionaire businessmen and even other judges.
The Tribune's review of cases found that judges regularly fail to give a reason in their written orders for sealing files; hide entire case files when they needed only to remove sensitive information such as Social Security numbers or home addresses; and that the sealing orders often remain secret despite state case law finding orders are public documents and "should not be kept under seal."
Courts in the United States have a long tradition of openness, and experts say court secrecy fosters mistrust and can put public safety at risk.
"These cases go to the integrity of the courts system," said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has fought for openness in the courts. "It is hard to have a democratic system, or one that works to make sure the law is just and the courts are fair, if what happens in the courts is secret."
In Illinois, bills aimed at curtailing secrecy in the courts have failed multiple times in the Legislature since 1999, opposed by the health care, insurance and manufacturing industries.
There is no way to know what is contained in Cook County's sealed files since they remain in locked rooms. But a review of dozens of previously sealed court files in the Law Division offers a glimpse, with instances of the well-connected and the well-known having their cases hidden from the public.
One such case involved chef Laurent Gras, who led Chicago's acclaimed L20 restaurant to achieve Michelin's three-star rating, the guide's highest.
Gras, an avid cyclist, was riding his $11,000 S-Works bike on the city's North Side in September 2008 when he and a car collided in an intersection, according to court records. He suffered seven broken ribs, a collapsed lung, two pelvic fractures and cuts and bruises.
In December 2008, he sued the 22-year-old driver in the Law Division, where complex legal battles play out and where large amounts of money are at stake.
Gras filed his complaint under a pseudonym, "John Doe," and asked Judge William Maddux to seal the entire file. Maddux, who presides over the court's Law Division, granted Gras' request.
Maddux gave no reason in his written order for sealing the file.
Instead, his order contained vague language similar to what is found in other judges' orders for sealing files: "Plaintiff's motion is granted and this cause of action shall be filed under a fictitious name and the court file shall be sealed and not unsealed until further order of the court."
In February 2009, Judge Kathy Flanagan unsealed the case, finding there was "no lawful basis to suppress the entire court file." She, however, allowed it to proceed as John Doe versus Paige Jessee, then a graduate student and Caribou Coffee barista. Flanagan declined to comment.
The Tribune confirmed Gras was John Doe through a public records request for the accident report from Chicago police.
Jessee told police that Gras entered the intersection against the red light, according to the police report. Gras was taken to a hospital in an ambulance.
Gras reached an out-of-court settlement with Jessee's insurance company, according to Jessee's lawyer, Harold Himelman, who said the terms were confidential. Gras, who has since left Chicago and L20, did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer declined to comment.
Maddux said last week that he did not recall why he sealed the Gras case and added that he has sealed cases to prevent "somebody who wants to peruse through files to find something scandalous."