I’m a firm believer in our free press. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog. I’m also an attorney, and in my near decade-long legal career, I’ve learned that justice does not grow well behind closed doors. When it comes to our courts, it’s imperative that they be open and accessible to everyone, especially the press.
At the same time, the truth can be painful for parties involved in the legal process. It’s not fun having your fights and faults aired in front of the general public.
In American history, we have weighed these interests and erred on the side of openness and access to the courts, and it has served us well. The alternative is an invitation for unequal justice under a blanket of secrecy. Just think about your personal life. Isn’t it easier to do something wrong if you know no one’s watching. The temptation lurks for our judges as well. Remember, there are imperfect human beings under those robes.
With that said, on to the points of this post, starting with some background:
From what has been reported, wealthy Fayetteville businessman Mike Lallier has been accused by one or more minors of sexual abuse or assault. He has settled some portion of these claims against him.
Minors can’t enter into settlement contracts (or any other contract) under North Carolina law, so civil settlements with minors must be “court approved” in order to be legally enforceable. This means that a Superior Court judge has to investigate and review the settlement and ensure it is in the minor’s best interest in light of all of the circumstances. Even the attorney fees are reviewed to ensure the minor is being protected. Here’s a good blog post if you want more detail on the minor settlement procedure.
So how did the court approval process go in the Lallier case(s)? We don’t know.
Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons recused himself from hearing the case and brought in a special judge from out of county. The special judge decided to seal the entire file. He even sealed the order sealing the file!
The Fayetteville Observer sued and argued that sealing the file violated the paper’s rights under the 1st Amendment. The case went up to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Multiple Fayetteville law firms argued the file should remain sealed, including (from the court’s opinion):
- Player McLean, LLP, by James A. McLean, III
- McCoy Wiggins Cleveland & McLean PLLC, by Richard M. Wiggins
- Beaver, Courie, Sternlicht, Hearp & Broadfoot, P.A., by H. Gerald Beaver and David T. Courie, Sr.
Judge Donna Stroud (my former law professor at Campbell) summed up the special nature of the case, writing for the court:
We have been unable to find any other case in North Carolina in which the entire court file, including the court orders sealing the file, has been sealed. This level of protection from public access is unprecedented in North Carolina and has occurred in only very few cases throughout the United States. Even in cases dealing with highly sensitive matters such as national security, only specific portions of files are sealed or documents are redacted as needed, instead of sealing the entire file.
Now, unless the North Carolina Supreme Court gets involved, the file will be unsealed with the minor’s names redacted, which is an entirely reasonable result in this blogger’s opinion.
If you want access to the file after it is unsealed, its available to you at the Cumberland County Courthouse. That’s how our system is supposed to work, and you have the founders of the United States Bill of Rights and the Fayetteville Observer to thank for that.
Our rights are meaningless if they are not exercised.