Cook County judges have helped the wealthy, well-known and well-connected to keep their family matters hidden while using the public's courts, according to a Tribune investigation. (Posted: April 27, 2013)

It was not until June 8, 2006, when the divorce was final, that the public learned about the marital dispute. Media reports at the time said Johnson agreed to pay $38,000 a month in child support and more than $360,000 toward the purchase of a home for his ex-wife and their daughter, as well as other payments.

“This was a painful chapter in my life that was settled nearly seven years ago,” Johnson said in a statement. “And the primary reason for confidentiality was to protect our young child.”

Lochhead said “my No. 1 reason” for agreeing to the use of initials was for privacy.

Lawyers shielded

Privacy was also the reason various lawyers gave for wanting their domestic cases hidden.

Judge Samuel Betar III in 2004 sealed the divorce between lawyer William Axley and his wife, lobbyist and former state Sen. Cheryl Axley. Cheryl Axley said her ex-husband wanted it sealed.

“He just wanted a lot of our financial information private,” she said. “Of course (I agreed). Why do I care?”

William Axley said the case was appropriately sealed. Betar said he could not recall why he sealed it.

Cook County prosecutor Holly Kremin and lawyer David Kremin also were given the same level of secrecy. Judge Jeanne Marie Reynolds sealed their divorce in 2009, saying it was in the best interests of the couple's child.

David Kremin's lawyer, Evan James Mammas, said there were concerns about personal financial information becoming public. David Kremin, at the time, had assets worth more than $7 million, according to court records.

Holly Kremin and her lawyer declined to comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block also wanted his identity shielded in his 2010 parentage and support case because of the “sensitive nature” of his employment and that of the child's mother, lawyer Randi Ellias.

Judge Dominique Ross agreed and granted the request. Block and Ellias declined to comment.

Since 2006, one federal judge and four other judges also had their cases hidden from the public. Among them was Rodolfo Garcia.

Garcia was a state appellate court judge in 2007 when Bellows sealed Garcia's divorce from his wife. Garcia said in an interview he believes divorces are private matters.

“I don't think it makes much of a difference to the voting public whether my divorce case is sealed or unsealed,” he said. “(But I) see the point in trying to get uniformity. Everyone should be subject to the same standard.”

Garcia also did not report his divorce on his annual judicial disclosure form, a public report that judges must file. Garcia, who is now a Cook County judge, called it an oversight.

Other judges told the Tribune they asked that their identities be protected for safety reasons.

In such instances, legal experts said a judge's order should publicly disclose that a specific threat of physical harm exists. The mere fact that an individual has a high-profile job does not by itself reach that threshold, said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has fought for openness in the courts.

“The law doesn't say that just because you are a public official, you are entitled to more secrecy,” Bryant said.