Connecticut's elite enjoy 'secret file' lawsuits

Newspaper uncovers separate, closed court hearings for rich, famous

Sunday, February 9, 2003

— Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons, Bruce Springsteen's saxophonist in the E Street Band, was surprised when a sheriff appeared in his dressing room at the Hartford Civic Center to serve him with paternity papers moments before a show.

Even more surprising was what happened next: All traces of the paternity case vanished from the public record. It was listed on no docket; clerks denied it existed.

And yet it did. The petition served on Clemons in May 2000 had become a "secret file," absorbed into a shadowy realm of the state's courts, where closed courtrooms and sealed cases permit Connecticut's elite to air their dirty laundry in private.

With wide discretion and little accountability, judges have selectively sealed divorce, paternity and other cases involving fellow judges, celebrities and wealthy CEOs that, for most people, would play out in full view of the public, according to a Hartford Courant review of the state civil court docket.

In some of these cases, those designated as level 1, the very existence of the lawsuit is secret -- a drastic step that even some judges and lawyers were unaware of until recently. In level 2 cases, the parties' names appear on dockets, but the files are sealed and the courtrooms are closed. A reporter was denied access last year to a Middletown courtroom where a level 2 family-court case involving Boston Celtics center Vin Baker was being heard.

In addition to Clemons, other beneficiaries of level 1, or "super-sealing," have included rock guitarist Rick Derringer and University of Connecticut President Philip E. Austin. Derringer's 1997 divorce has since been switched to a level 2.

Connecticut judges have granted level 2 protection in divorce-court cases involving Robert Selander, chief executive officer of MasterCard; Gerald Tsai, chairman of Citigroup subsidiary Primerica Corp; Paul Allaire, former CEO of Xerox; Peter Bijur, former chairman of Texaco; Vincent Camuto, founder of Nine West; and Arthur T. Anderson, a prominent Hartford businessman.

In some cases, celebrity status alone seems to dictate whether suits are sealed, as in the divorce case involving soap opera star James DePaiva, who plays Max Holden on "One Life to Live," and Misty Lin Rowe, who for 19 years was the sunny blonde on TV's "Hee Haw."

Precisely why these files were sealed remains a mystery because, in many cases, the reason for such secrecy is itself kept secret. The question of whether or how widely the practice is abused has, therefore, remained virtually impervious to public consideration until now.

Under public pressure, state Supreme Court Chief Justice William J. Sullivan said last week he has recommended that the practice of maintaining, in his words, "secret files" be eliminated, and that the circumstances under which cases may be sealed be clarified.

Sullivan said a group of judges who reviewed the practice late in January -- after The Connecticut Law Tribune and The Courant published reports about it -- found that it risks undermining public trust and confidence in the state's courts.