A judge who kept a lawsuit involving actress Sharon Stone hidden from public view for six months acknowledged Friday that she made a mistake and ordered the case unsealed.
In a statement attached to the newly opened file, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis said a series of missteps, each committed "inadvertently," led to the concealment of every part of the case -- including its very existence. She wrote that she sealed the entire suit when she meant to seal only the exhibits, filed all case documents in a sealed envelope when only a few belonged there and then forgot to revisit the issue after the case was settled.
The revelation that a suit concerning a high-profile individual traveled through the justice system without ever appearing on a public docket concerned advocates for open courts. They said it violated citizens' rights to know what is going on in the courthouse and raised the disturbing possibility of other secret cases.
The judge did not explain why she repeatedly brushed aside requests by reporters this week to view the file or why a court reporter said she could not release transcripts of public hearings in the case until the judge agreed. Duffy-Lewis initially provided reporters only two pages of the 60-page file, which each stated only that the matter was sealed.
After a Times article Friday about the case, Duffy-Lewis met with the presiding judge and other court officials. She then reversed course and admitted the case was erroneously sealed. "Due to the above inadvertence, the court orders the entire file unsealed," she wrote.
The extraordinary secrecy seemed out of proportion to the actual contents of the suit -- a fairly standard breach-of-contract action filed by an entertainment lawyer that Stone fired in 2006. William P. Jacobson claimed that the actress owed him $107,000 for work that included negotiating an endorsement contract with Christian Dior perfume as well as her appearance in the film "Broken Flowers."
The suit would hardly cause jaws to drop in the courthouse, where the divorces, child custody battles and sexual harassment suits of Hollywood stars routinely play out before crowds of reporters.
To the parties involved, however, keeping the case secret appeared to be of the utmost importance. In court papers filed with the suit in November, an attorney for Jacobson urged the judge to seal every page. The lawyer's argument appeared to rely more on the confidential terms of a retainer agreement signed by Stone and Jacobson than state law or the U.S. Constitution.
"Keeping the records of this action under seal would benefit both plaintiff and defendant and allow this matter to be heard without the parties having to reveal their private business dealings to the public at large," lawyer David Bower wrote. Stone's attorney, Charles Ruben, never filed a response in court, but, out of court, the parties worked out a settlement. Ruben later told the judge the deal was possible because she kept the case confidential. But at two post-settlement hearings, the judge said the sides didn't have sufficient grounds for sealing the case indefinitely.
"No court has the jurisdiction to summarily decide that they will seal records because it's painful or because it's embarrassing or because they just deem it to be private for the parties," she said at a February hearing, according to a transcript included in the file.
Duffy-Lewis did express distaste for media coverage of some court matters. If it were possible to "seal everything wherein small children are involved and . . . wherein it might very well be in the interest of small children not to have this stuff you know flying around in TMZ or in the L.A. Times or whoever it is," she said, "that would be reasonable to the court." But, she said, she wasn't "empowered" to do so.
At the last hearing, Ruben said unsealing the case would bring additional litigation and suggested that the judge drop the matter. She took the case off her calendar and the file was transferred to the records department still under seal.
The judge did not respond to questions relayed by court spokesman Allan Parachini, including whether she had kept other cases secret. Presiding Judge Charles McCoy would not speak publicly about the case, but Parachini said he planned to remind judges about the strict guidelines for sealing cases.