Recently, the divorce file of a high profile public servant, Representative Keith Ellison, brought to attention the issue of divorce files in family court. The question raised was whether a divorce file was accessible to the public. The reason it came to the media’s attention, is that in Representative Ellison’s divorce, he and his former spouse requested that the Court “seal” the divorce file. Without knowing the specifics of the case, this was likely done due to the parties’ realization, at the time of their divorce, that a life in public service would likely result in public interest in their divorce. This brings up an interesting dichotomy about divorce.
While divorces are, by nature, personal matters involving domestic relationships, they are heard and determined in a very public process, in civil courts. Divorces are heard in family court, a branch of civil court. The right to access court records is embedded in the common law (“judge made law”). Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197, 203 (Minn. 1986). This right isn’t absolute, though, and the courts have also recognized that there is a right to keep certain information private. For instance, the Courts recognize that there is a right to keep private, information about medical treatment, financial information, and personal identification like a Social Security Number.
The Ellison divorce records went from public, to private (at the parties’ request), to public again after the court determined presumably that the parties’ rights to keep the divorce private, were outweighed by the public’s right to know.
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