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Scott v. Scott: Should Divorce Records Always Be Public?

With the election just weeks away, the question of why congressional candidate Austin Scott's divorce records are sealed has now become a political issue. Scott is a Republican running against four-term incumbent Jim Marshall in Georgia's eighth district, which covers much of the center of the state south of Atlanta.

Amy Morton of Macon, a family therapist and Democratic activist has filed a motion to open Scott's divorce records, which are under seal. She claims she is not acting on behalf of Marshall's campaign and that politics is not her motivation.

"I've had no contact with the Marshall campaign on this issue. It is my decision. I think the public has a right to know why the records are sealed and what is in the records," Morton said recently in the Macon Telegraph.

"My records, other people's records, are open. Why should Mr. Scott be any different?"

The Scott campaign has declined to give any information about why the records are sealed or whether they would be unsealed before the election. Marshall's spokesperson Doug Moore told reporters that the "motion came as a complete surprise to us. We had absolutely nothing to do with this or any knowledge it was going to be filed."

Sealing of Divorce Records Allowed Only When Privacy Concerns Outweigh the Public Interest

Court records in Georgia divorces are open to the public unless the person seeking to seal them can prove that the harm they would experience from public access to the records outweighs the public's interest in accessing them. When a court orders a record sealed, it must limit the sealed portion as much as possible, and it must make specific findings about why the petitioner's harm outweighs the public's interest.

In the 1988 case of Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution v. Long, the Georgia Supreme Court explained the public's right to see court records this way:

"Public access protects litigants both present and future, because justice faces its gravest threat when courts dispense it secretly."

That being said, it is unlikely that records could be sealed merely because the case involved a high-asset divorce or embarrassing personal details.

Georgia law allows anyone to request that a record be unsealed at any time for good cause, and a hearing must be held. A hearing to reopen Scott's divorce records has been scheduled for October 26 in Tift County Superior Court.

According to University of Georgia political expert Charles Bullock, one political reason for trying to reopen Scott's divorce records might be to hurt Scott in early voting, which is now allowed in Georgia. A similar petition was brought two years ago when Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson was divorced just before the 2008 election season.

"The election is really under way right now, with people going to the polls to cast early votes," Bullock said. "It could be damaging to Scott."  

Source: Macon Telegraph, "Morton: Scott divorce should be open," Shelby G. Spires, October 8, 2010

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