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The lord of divorce

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POSTED: February 28, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The arrogance of Glenn Richardson, Georgia’s House Speaker, has taken on world-class stature. Last week, he apparently persuaded a Paulding County judge and former law partner to approve a quickie divorce and then seal all the proceedings from public view.

Richardson is already known for throwing his weight around with fellow Republican House members who don’t toe the line on his views. Two weeks ago, he sacked some GOP members from their committee assignments and leadership roles because they refused to back the candidate Richardson wanted for the board of the state Department of Transportation.

Now it appears Richardson is getting his way with the judicial branch as well. Ordinary Georgians — teachers and personal trainers, dentists and dietitians — don’t get their way in divorce court. They have to appear before a designated judge, whose calendar has been pre-set; they are expected to wait a month before the divorce is finalized; and the proceedings are part of the public record, which anybody may read.

Not the House Speaker. In an extraordinary sequence of events, Richardson and his former wife appeared before Paulding Superior Court Judge James Osborne and got a divorce in a private meeting in the judge’s chambers Wednesday afternoon. Richardson represented himself in the case. His former wife, Susan, had no attorney present.

Osborne, a former law partner of Richardson’s, apparently intercepted the divorce documents before they had been officially filed and decided to handle the case on his own. Another Paulding Superior Court judge, Tommy Beavers, was next in rotation to preside over the case, but he never saw the file.

Osborne sealed the records in apparent violation of the rules that govern the state’s superior courts. Before closing files from civil cases, a judge must hold a public hearing to discuss which documents will be sealed, and for how long. There is no indication Osborne did that in the Richardsons’ case.

Instead, Osborne ruled that the secrecy was required to protect the Richardsons and their three children from potential harm. He said the need to protect the family "outweighs any public interest" to inspect the divorce documents.

But state law on public access to divorce cases says exactly the opposite. Public access to court records is given a higher standing than the potential embarrassment or privacy concerns of the couple getting the divorce.

Moreover, state law requires a 30-day waiting period, at a minimum, for an uncontested divorce. Some counties require a longer wait and further stipulate that the husband and wife undergo counseling before the decree is final. Exceptions to the 30-day rule are exceedingly rare.

Osborne had no business overseeing the divorce of his former law partner. His conduct should be examined by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Of course, because the records are now sealed, the public may never know the reasons why the divorce needed to be granted immediately. Then again, Richardson may have good reasons for wanting to keep the record secret.

Last year the state Democratic Party chairman, Bobby Kahn, filed an ethics complaint against the speaker, alleging that he had an "inappropriate relationship" with a lobbyist while co-sponsoring legislation that would have benefited her employer. At the time, Kahn offered few details of the alleged affair, claiming Richardson’s relationship with the lobbyist was widely known around the Gold Dome. A legislative ethics committee dismissed the complaint.

 

Under most circumstances, the personal behavior of a public official is not a matter of public interest. But Richardson’s handling of his divorce — choosing the judge he wanted to handle it and getting the case file sealed — calls into question his duty to uphold the laws of his state, laws the very chamber he leads helped to write.

 

He and his handpicked judge owe the public an explanation. They should start by unsealing the court records in his divorce case.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Feb. 12, 2008

 

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