Three newspapers asked a special appointed judge earlier this week to deny any attempts to seal the court record in a Monroe businessman’s lawsuit against five Fourth Judicial District Court judges and a law clerk.
The state’s two largest newspapers, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate and The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, as well as The Ouachita Citizen filed a motion to intervene in Stanley Palowsky’s lawsuit against the district court officials. In their petition to intervene, the newspapers asked ad hoc Judge Jerome “Jerry” Barbera of Thibodaux to reject any efforts to expand judicial secrecy in Palowsky’s case.
In 2015, Palowsky sued law clerk Allyson Campbell and the five judges — Fred Amman, Wilson Rambo, Carl Sharp, Stephens Winters and retired judge Benjamin “Ben” Jones — on behalf of his company, Alternative Environmental Solutions Inc. (AESI). In his lawsuit, Palowsky claimed that Campbell concealed or shredded documents he filed in a separate lawsuit involving AESI, and that the five judges conspired with Campbell to conceal those activities.
The Palowsky case has a lengthy and controversial history, including a criminal investigation of Campbell as well as a legal dispute that was appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court and to the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to entertain an appeal by the five judges, who wanted to escape liability for civil damages by seeking shelter under the legal doctrine of judicial immunity. As the courts have ruled, judicial immunity does not apply in a case where judges are accused of aiding an employee, or law clerk, in destroying court documents.
The newspapers filed their motion in light of a July 10 court filing revealing a protective order proposed by the defendant judges in Palowsky’s case. According to Palowsky, the defendants’ proposed protective order could be used to seal from public disclosure any details about felony crimes, graft, corruption or other wrongdoing that might surface during the taking of testimony.
Under the judges’ proposed protective order, confidential information included any “testimony, documents and information” about the operations of the district court, conversations at judges’ meetings, conversations between judges and law clerks, written or oral communications between judges and their law clerks, investigations of confidential complaints, personnel records of court officials and more.
The proposed protective order surfaced during negotiations between the parties in Stanley R. Palowsky III and others v. Allyson Campbell and others about how to commence with depositions (the taking of testimony in advance of a trial).
“The matter before this Honorable Court, involving public servants and significant allegations of malfeasance, is of significant public interest, warranting news coverage in both the local media and the state’s newspaper of record,” stated the newspapers’ memorandum in support of the motion to intervene. “Movants take no position as to the merits of this litigation, but are cognizant of certain protective orders and court closures which may at some point in the future come into play.”
Scott Sternberg and Michael Finkelstein, with the New Orleans law firm Sternberg, Naccari & White, are representing the three newspapers. Sternberg, Naccari & White also represents the Louisiana Press Association on First Amendment and public records matters.
According to the newspapers’ motion, the records filed in the record in Palowsky v. Campbell should be unredacted and unsealed.
“Every document involved in this matter cannot be marked ‘confidential’ just because one party believes it so,” stated the newspapers’ memorandum.
A hearing date on the newspapers’ motion had not been set as of Tuesday evening.