Tom Benson's mental competency files to remain sealed

By John Breslin | Apr 16, 2016

Tom Benson   Wikipedia

NEW ORLEANS – Records relating to the Tom Benson mental competency case will remain under seal following a ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The estranged relatives of the New Orleans Saints owner had filed a petition with the court asking that some records relating to the proceedings be unsealed.

An eight-day mental competency trial took place last June behind the closed doors of the Orleans Parish Civil District Court. Judge Kern Reese also ordered all files to be sealed. Following the trial, Reese ruled Benson is mentally competent to run his business affairs, which includes the Saints and the Pelicans basketball franchise. His daughter and grandchildren are appealing that ruling in the Supreme Court.

Attorneys for Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, argued the records in the 88-year-old billionaire's competency case could be made public without revealing confidential medical information.

They argued Reese's sealing was "unprecedented" and in violation of the public's constitutionally protected right to access public records.

"Further this litigation regards a public figure whose business empire receives millions of dollars of public expenditures from Louisiana taxpayers, pumps millions of dollars of revenues into Louisiana as a whole and therefore should not be conducted under a cloak of complete secrecy," the petition read. 

Mary Ellen Roy, an attorney who represented media outlets in a failed bid to gain access to the original competency trial, echoed that view on Friday, arguing some transcripts and records may be withheld for confidential medical reasons, but not all.

“It would be in the public interest for the transcripts to be released, to be redacted but that the parts that can be made public should be made public,” Ellen Roy, whose appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the media outlets was turned down, told the Louisiana Record. 

The Supreme Court has now turned down the petition to partially unseal the records without a hearing, and without delivering a majority opinion.

Judge Scott Crichton did, however, deliver a concurring opinion, with some reasons for rejecting the petition.

“I write separately, however, to express my belief, consistent with our Constitution, that court proceedings should be open to the public unless there is a constitutional or statutory basis to close proceedings,” Crichton wrote.

But, Crichton said, “State and federal authority exists on which to base a determination that these sensitive proceedings, which heavily rely on protected medical information, should be closed to the public,

Further, in “interdiction matters such as this one” the Louisiana Constitution “provides that the hearing may be closed for good cause.”

In January, news reporters were blocked from entering the public building that houses the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Louisiana Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit clerk's office while Tom Benson and his estranged heirs attended an appeal hearing in the case, according to news reports. 

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court ruling that Benson is mentally competent. The case now goes to the Supreme Court.

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