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Church of Scientology argues for keeping court files sealed

Title: Church of Scientology argues for keeping court files sealed
Date: Thursday, 15 June 1989
Publisher: St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
Author: Stephen Koff
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TAMPA — A newspaper waited too long before asking a judge to open court files that were sealed more than two years ago, attorneys for the Church of Scientology argued Wednesday.

"It's unprecedented, this kind of wait," said new York lawyer Michael Lee Hertzberg. He was referring to the 26 months that went by after U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich sealed four lawsuits that were settled with the church in 1986.

But at a hearing before federal magistrate Paul Game Jr., a St. Petersburg Times attorney said the delay in asking that the files be opened should not matter. Current events — including the 1988 arrest in Spain of Scientology's international president, Heber Jentzsch — make the Scientology files newsworthy, said Patricia Fields Anderson.

Further, a document shows that there are matters related to the case still being argued secretly in court, Ms. Anderson said. These matters pertain to whether a former church member, who settled her dispute with the church, is violating the settlement agreement by talking about Scientology.

Times editors believe the newspaper has a constitutional right to tell readers about these proceedings, Ms. Anderson said.

The sealed files contain information from four lawsuits charging Scientology with harassment and invasion of privacy. In 1986, the church settled the suits for undisclosed sums, and the parties agreed not to discuss their grievances. Judge Kovachevich immediately granted a Scientology motion to seal the files.

The Times asked Kovachevich to unseal the files last fall, and in May the judge, citing an overloaded docket, referred the matter to a magistrate. At a hearing Wednesday, Ms. Anderson said that even if all parties agreed to seal the files, "they don't have the right to stipulate away the rights of the public. . . . Public rights cannot be negotiated away as an ace in settlement negotiations."

But magistrate Game, seeking to keep the arguments on track, cautioned that the Times, and not the public, was seeking to open the files. And Hertzberg said the Times waited too long.

The Scientology attorney also argued that unsealing the files would unravel the four settlements, because Scientology paid money to the plaintiffs in exchange for secrecy. "Money has exchanged hands, positions became irretrievably fixed . . . and then they come floating in with this motion for intervention. . . " he said of the Times.

Game told the church and newspaper to file papers proposing their court orders, citing case law where appropriate, in 10 days.