Unsealing divorces in New York

by Kenneth H. Ryesky May 7th, 2014 8:15 pm

Col. Holland Sackett Duell was a noted New York lawyer, decorated military officer, politician, and yachtsman.  The Colonel's life was interesting; sufficiently interesting that author Christopher Madsen now aspires to write a biography of him.


Duell was twice married, first to Mabel Halliwell and then, after his divorce from Mabel in 1925, to Emilie Brown.  As with other divorces in New York, the court of Duell's divorce from Mabel is sealed.  Section 235 of New York Domestic Relations Law basically seals the court records of all matrimonial actions for one hundred years, absent a court order issued for good cause.


Madsen, having been rebuffed by the Westchester County Clerk in seeking access to the file, brought a proceeding for a court order, claiming that the book he seeks to write will be "an academic work of historical importance," and speculating that information sealed in the divorce case file might contain some facts of public interest for his tome in the making.


The last of Holland and Mabel's children died in 2003, and Madsen's petition to the court was unopposed.  Nevertheless, Justice Francesca E. Connolly denied Madsen's petition for an order to unseal the file.  Madsen v. Westchester County Clerk, 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1899, 2014 NY Slip Op 50675(U) (Sup. Ct., Westchester Co. 2014).


The statute was last tweaked by the New York State Legislature in 1979, way back before modern text media technology altered the personal privacy scene.  Even then, the statute provides that the only information about a sealed matrimonial case file to be made available to a curious member of the public is a "certificate of disposition" which effectively says only that the divorce (or child custody decree) was granted; evidence and testimony are shielded for 100 years absent a compelling reason.

Justice Connolly* wrote in her opinion:  "[F]ishing expeditions into sealed records should not be permitted; rather, a petitioner seeking access to sealed records must be able to articulate and particularize the relevance of the information sought to an important pending matter.   ...  Public officials charged with safeguarding records containing the intimate details of litigants' lives bear a 'heavy responsibility'  ...  By sparingly exercising their discretion to permit access to these records, courts promote an atmosphere of privacy for litigants that encourages open and honest disclosure in the context of matrimonial litigation."

Justice Connolly did not consider Madsen's literary pursuits sufficient reason to unseal the record, even though the divorcing couple and all of their children are now deceased and would not suffer embarrassment from the disclosure.

The New York scheme, then, strikes a balance between the free flow of information and the need for privacy.

Madsen will just have to wait until 2025 to write about whatever lurid details attended to the Colonel's divorce.


[*  In New York, the lowest courts of general jurisdiction are the Supreme Courts, to be found in each county; the jurists who sit on the benches wearing the black robes are invested with the title "Justice" and not "Judge."].