April 21, 2017 03:21 PM
Third Circuit Court of Appeal candidate Candyce Perret and her ex-fiancé are both fighting to keep public records from the public. They won't succeed.
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[Editor's Note: Read the update to this story here.]

New Orleans Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin made it clear in Thursday’s hearing that The Independent will prevail ­— at least in part — in its efforts to unseal three lawsuits filed against Third Circuit Court of Appeal candidate Candyce Gagnard Perret by her ex-fiancé, New Orleans attorney John Houghtaling Jr.

In late March, this news organization filed a public records lawsuit against a sole defendant, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Dale N. Atkins, seeking to unseal legal actions Houghtaling filed against Perret in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Prior to its public records lawsuit, however, The IND received from a source a copy of the original 2005 petition, in which Houghtaling sought a restraining order against Perret, alleging she stalked, harassed, intimidated and defamed him and his new girlfriend. (We were able to confirm in the New Orleans courthouse this week that the 2005 suit is indeed under seal.)

Based on what we now know about the disturbing 2005 suit, The IND believes there is even more troubling information about this controversial candidate in these remaining sealed suits. Why else would she and Houghtaling — whom we assume also has something he wants to hide — fight so hard to keep the suits out of the public domain?

In her New Orleans courtroom this week, Judge Griffin ruled that Houghtaling and Perret do have standing in The IND's action and allowed them to intervene. That means Perret and Houghtaling may be subject to the obligations and enforcement provisions of the Louisiana public records statute, meaning they could be liable for The IND’s attorneys’ fees, court costs and $100 a day penalties for each day they fail to turn over the public records.

The original defendant in the case, Clerk of Court Atkins, has not taken a position in the case; her attorney, Fred Herman, appeared in court to tell the judge his client is merely awaiting her decision.

By Monday at 3 p.m., Perret's and Houghtaling's respective attorneys (New Orleans lawyers James Williams and Keith Doley initially appeared in court March 23, in The IND’s earlier attempt to unseal the records, on behalf of both Houghtaling and Perret but have since split their representation) must file their oppositions to The IND’s public records suit seeking to unseal the actions. Doley and attorney Chris Gobert are now representing Perret, and Williams is legal counsel for Houghtaling. (Present for The Independent were Publisher Steve May and Editorial Director Leslie Turk.)

More important, however, was Griffin’s directive to the attorneys to review each of the three cases and create a redaction log, essentially making the case to the court for why they think portions of the suit should be shielded from public view. That’s also due by 3 p.m. Monday, at which time IND attorney Gary McGoffin will be allowed to review the suits and the proposed redactions, establishing the paper’s opposition to their claims of privacy.

McGoffin’s response to their redactions and to their opposition to unseal the suits is due to the court by Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Griffin set a hearing for 9 a.m. Wednesday, saying she will rule in the case at that time. That means voters may have at least some idea what's in those lawsuits before they go to the polls April 29 to decide between Perret and Susan Theall in this election. The parishes in the district include Acadia, Allen, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, and Vermilion. The race is for the eight years remaining on the term for the seat made vacant when Jimmy Genovese of Opelousas won election to the Louisiana Supreme Court over Marilyn Castle of Lafayette in November.

The IND believes the law is clearly on our side in this legal battle ­— we cite case law from the state Supreme Court decision in Copeland v Copeland, in which The Times-Picayune prevailed in its effort to unseal the divorce proceedings of the late Al Copeland. The decision notes in part:
Whenever there is doubt as to whether the public has the right of access to certain records, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the public’s right to see. To allow otherwise would be an improper and arbitrary restriction on the public’s constitutional rights. ... Although there may be some justification for sealing certain sensitive evidence in a proceeding, the parties have the burden of making a specific showing that their privacy interests outweigh the public’s constitutional right of access to the record. The trial court, should it grant such relief, must ensure that its order is narrowly tailored to cause the least interference possible with the right of public access.
The irony in this latest public records effort is that it is Perret, by virtue of her decision to run for the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, who best makes the case for why we should prevail.

Voters have a constitutional right to access all of the information contained in these suits before deciding who should represent them on the appeals court. And experts we have consulted can find no legal privacy protections that outweigh the public’s right to know.

Who is Candyce Perret? Can we trust her to be a judge? Other than her troubled past (read more here), so very little is known about her. Ask an attorney friend if he or she had ever even heard the name Candyce Perret before this election.

It’s important to point out that Perret and Houghtaling, both of whom have been practicing since 1997, had various options available to them to settle their differences in a private setting, among which are arbitration, mediation or other privately signed and sealed documents (all Perret has disclosed thus far is that one of the cases is a "confidential settlement agreement"). Instead, they chose to go through the civil court system, with full knowledge that civil suit records are public records. Now they are fighting tooth and nail to avoid public scrutiny of their own decisions.

They can’t have it both ways. We won’t let them.

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