Joey Senat, author of Mass Communication in Oklahoma and associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University, said divorce filings are as much a public record as lawsuits and criminal charges.
“Divorce records are not private and are included in the public court system,” he said.
Senat’s comments come on the heels of a legal battle between Shadid and The Oklahoman, which is pushing to have the councilman’s sealed divorce documents made public.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Monday that The Oklahoman can seek access to Shadid’s sealed divorce records by filing a proper legal pleading with Oklahoma County Special Judge Lisa K. Hammond, the original divorce judge.
“All of this current litigation and expense demonstrates the very reason why courts should rarely take the drastic measure of sealing public records,” Justice Steven Taylor wrote in a concurring opinion. “After the records are sealed, those seeking to protect the public interest are required to go to great time and expense to view what were once public records. This issue should be resolved by a hearing forthwith. This was this trial judge’s original plan.”
Hammond has indicated previously she will approve the newspaper’s request to unseal the divorce papers.
Kelly Dyer Fry, editor of The Oklahoman and vice president of news for OPUBCO Communications Group, said the newspaper planned to file the legal paperwork as early as Tuesday afternoon.
Pleading the Fifth
The Oklahoman reported in its Dec. 8 edition that Shadid “sought to keep possible criminal wrongdoing from coming out in his divorce by invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.”
However, Shadid acknowledged in a series of media interviews on Dec. 8 that he invoked the Fifth Amendment during a divorce deposition on the advice of his attorney. The questions he refused to answer dealt with his use of marijuana.
Shadid has talked publicly on numerous occasions about a marijuana addiction he endured more than a decade ago, as well as the subsequent rehab and long-term recovery he underwent. Shadid said he and his ex-wife are fighting the newspaper’s attempt to unseal the divorce records to prevent his three children from suffering undue embarrassment or harm.
“Family law court cases can and do involve matters of purely private interest between two parents and their children,” Shadid said in a prepared statement. “There are times when the parties and the court determine there are certain matters in the case that involve the private lives of individuals, the well-being of the children and do not concern the proper working of government or others matters of legitimate public interest. That determination was made many years ago in my divorce case.”
However, Senat doesn’t share Shadid’s compassion for the children caught in the middle.
“Children are in a lot of divorces,” he said. “Just because it’s going to be embarrassing to a child is no reason to withhold public records. He should sit his kids down and explain things to them.”
Oklahoma County Special Judge Lisa Hammond sealed the divorce records on June 11, 2007, upon requests from Shadid and his ex-wife, Dina Hammam.
Also, Oklahoman reporter Nolan Clay wrote a letter dated Sept. 30, 2013, to Hammond, asking that she unseal the divorce case. Hammond also sealed the order detailing the reason for her action.
“As you know, you have the authority to open up sealed records under the local court rules,” Clay wrote. “The Oklahoman believes the release of the records is in the public interest given that he is a candidate for mayor.”
As a result, Hammond scheduled a Nov. 15 hearing to consider the request, but the case was quickly moved to the Oklahoma Supreme Court as Shadid’s attorneys asked the justices to delay the Oklahoma County hearing and prohibit Hammond from making a decision on the newspaper’s request. The order delaying the hearing was signed by Justice John Riel.
Shadid’s attorney, Robert Norman, filed a court document that suggests Clay’s “informal letter” to the judge did not follow proper legal procedures. Norman asserted that Oklahoma corporations such as Oklahoma Publishing Company (OPUBCO) cannot start legal proceedings or appear in court without legal counsel.
“A staff reporter for a newspaper does not qualify as legally appropriate counsel for a company,” Norman wrote in the court filing.
Supreme Court Justice James Edmondson and Chief Justice C.J. Colbert agreed with Shadid’s attorney that Clay and The Oklahoman failed to take the appropriate legal steps in requesting the records be unsealed.
In a partial dissenting opinion, Edmondson wrote that the remedy for challenging a judicial order “is not an informal off-the-record plea to the judge by a non-party individual who is not licensed to practice law but purporting to represent another.”
In discussing public records and divorces in particular, Edmondson wrote, “The Open Records Act does not create privacy rights; but its exceptions to disclosure indicate that under some circumstances privacy rights of individuals should be protected…. The Act provides such protection for a privacy right in the context of a divorce proceeding when the personal privacy right supersedes the public’s right to acquire the information.”
Shadid contends the newspaper’s story was published to divert attention away from the campaign issues.
“This (The Oklahoman story) was nothing but a hit piece,” the councilman said. “They are trying to inflict as much political damage as they can. They want a maximum distraction from what’s really important in this mayor’s race, and that’s the issues and Mick Cornett’s record.”
Shadid contends he has nothing to hide, including his rehab and recovery from marijuana addiction.
“I’m just wondering why The Daily Oklahoman didn’t believe these same things were important in my last two elections. I’ve been making decisions for the people of Oklahoma City for almost the last three years,” he said.
Shadid defeated Charlie Swinton in April 2011 for the Ward 2 seat during a runoff election. Shadid received 62 percent of the total vote, although The Oklahoman endorsed Swinton, senior vice president and registered lobbyist for BancFirst.
The Ward 2 councilman said he wants to talk about addictions and the damage that can result, a message he has been promoting since before his foray into local politics.
“There are hundreds of people who would have heard me talk about this,” he said, referencing a 2012 public health forum that he attended with top officials from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Shadid said dealing with addiction is difficult for anyone and being forced to relive the past has been an arduous task.
“People in recovery all meet secretly in basements of churches. Most people in recovery believe anonymity is the spiritual foundation of their recovery. I’ve been blessed not to have any cravings. You cannot stop doing what you’re doing, and that’s taking care of yourself,” he said.
An estimated 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.