Keep court records open; Minton issues timely reminder

A chain of for-profit psychiatric centers might be expected to try to hide the unflattering details of its role in the death of a 16-year-old patient.

Why a circuit judge would go along without even listening to arguments for keeping the case file open is much harder to understand.

Turns out Adair Circuit Judge James Weddle, whose decision to seal the settlement and case was reversed by the Court of Appeals, is not alone in going overboard on secrecy.

Kentucky courts have been sealing files that should not be sealed and, in some cases, erasing any record that a case ever existed.

We don't mean to be melodramatic, but a government that can "disappear" any hint of a judicial proceeding against a citizen has a running start on totalitarianism. Likewise, the public loses when corporate interests can hide their wrongdoing in a sealed court settlement.

It's reassuring that once this came to light Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. moved quickly to correct a technology feature that enabled all traces of a court case to be erased with a keystroke.

Minton has ordered a change that will assure public access to the names of the parties and docket numbers of sealed cases, except those required by law to be confidential, such as some involving juveniles.

Minton also sent out a reminder that the existence of court cases and records should never be made secret and that court records should be closed "only for compelling reasons."

Minton's actions were in response to reporting by The Courier-Journal. About 3,600 cases have been sealed in their entirety at the discretion of a court since 2000, the Louisville newspaper revealed.

Among the 3,600 sealed cases was a settlement between the family of LaKeesha Cline and Spectrum Care Academy of Columbia, operator of a residential facility from which the suicidal teen ran away into a busy road where she was struck by two vehicles and killed.

Among the details that came out during the appeal was that LaKeesha's psychiatrist, who was treating her for bipolar disorder, ordered her discharged because her condition had improved. The girl had said her good-byes when the clinical director, without informing the psychiatrist, canceled her discharge. The company paid the clinical director a cash bonus for keeping the home's 16 beds occupied with income-generating residents, a practice that was discontinued after the youngster's death.

Without consulting her psychiatrist, the facility rejected her request to be hospitalized after she first ran out into traffic, two days before she succeeded in killing herself. The facility covered up the first suicide attempt.

Her family has fought to unseal its settlement so other families can have the information when making decisions about their children.

Judge Waddell has yet to schedule the hearing ordered by the appeals court on unsealing the case.

Thanks to Melissa Whitaker, LaKeesha's mother; Brenda Cline, her grandmother; and Stephen Hixson, the lawyer for LaKeesha's estate, for persisting in a painful battle that could benefit only others. They helped hold Kentucky's courts to their higher purpose.