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Editorial: Unwarranted sealing of documents is another assault on the public's right to know

The breakup of a business partnership may not be the most important thing on the public agenda, but when a public official violated important public rules to accommodate the principals in that dispute – and especially when that public official is a judge – the matter takes on greater significance.

That’s what is happening with the fracturing of the relationship between Ross E. Cellino Jr. and Stephen E. Barnes, owners of Buffalo’s highest-profile law firm, with offices as far away as California. Cellino filed a lawsuit to dissolve the business, making their issues a matter of legal and legitimate public interest, since taxpayer dollars will be used to resolve the dispute.

Yet legal documents in the case have been sealed and court officials last week went as far as to remove any reference to them from the court system website. It’s more important, evidently, for the court to protect these high-powered lawyers from themselves than it is to honor the law, serve the taxpayers and protect the public interest.

The issue is in the hands of State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes, whose silence on the matter is troubling. Last week a lawyer representing The Buffalo News hand-delivered a letter to the judge delineating the reasons the material should be public and requesting a response. As of Friday, she had not responded to efforts to unseal documents that are clearly public records.

Such secrecy is not what New Yorkers expect from their judges or other public officials. Residents of this state have a right to expect that judges will apply and uphold the law, even if it makes them uneasy, even if they have to discomfort powerful lawyers who practice in their courtrooms.

The willingness of public officials to stiff-arm the voters who put them in office is on regular display in Western New York. Not long ago, a different judge refused to release video of an assault on a prisoner by a Buffalo city jailer. Supporting that bad decision was Mayor Byron W. Brown.

The Erie County Water Authority recently hired outside lawyers at a cost to ratepayers of up to $435 an hour, but won’t say why.

In December, the Cheektowaga Police Department kept secret the name of a man who died in the town jail after being arrested. That was illegal – the Police Department broke the law. Later, it released the man’s name, but only after coming under pressure.

It’s clear from all these cases – and others – that New York’s laws on open government are insufficient. When even a Police Department and a judge feel free to violate a fundamental requirement of the public office they occupy, something is terribly amiss. Maybe better education would help. Certainly stiffer penalties are required.

Judge Chimes needs to reconsider her position on this matter and give priority to the public’s right to know.

The republic will survive nicely if Western New Yorkers never know the specific details of why a law firm came apart at the seams. That’s not the issue. The threat is if public officials broadly buy into the notion that the public gets to know only what they want the public to know.
How about this: Just follow the law.

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