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Los Angeles-A recent state appellate court ruling in the divorce of a Los Angeles billionaire has declared a California statute unconstitutional because it allows spouses to seal entire documents from public view. Ron Burkle, chairman of Yucaipa Cos., an investment firm that owns grocery chains including Wild Oats Market and Pathmark Stores Inc., is the first to use the 2004 statute by sealing 28 documents in his divorce from Janet Burkle. The documents disclosed the couple’s personal income and expenses, street addresses and post-marital agreement. But in its Jan. 20 ruling, a three-judge panel of the California 2d District Court of Appeal declared the statute “unconstitutional on its face,” and “not narrowly tailored to serve overriding privacy interests,” according to court papers. Burkle v. Burkle, No. B181878. Ruling’s far reach “This decision stretches far beyond this one statute in that the Court of Appeal clearly says the First Amendment right to access applies to divorce proceedings,” said Susan Seager of Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine’s Los Angeles office, who represented The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and other media groups that intervened in Burkle’s case. “They said a divorce trial is no different than an ordinary civil trial,” Seager noted. Burkle’s lawyers, Dennis Wasser, a partner at Wasser Cooperman & Carter, and Patricia Glaser, a partner at Los Angeles’ Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro, did not return calls seeking comment on possible plans to appeal to the California Supreme Court. In court papers, Burkle’s lawyers have said that documents in the divorce should be sealed because of concerns about identity theft and the safety of the couple’s son. The statute allows divorcees to seal entire documents, not just redact certain information from the record, which is one primary reason that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last March ruled that the statute was unconstitutional. The recent appellate ruling affirmed that decision, largely for the same reasons. The ruling comes as a growing number of wealthy individuals and executives have attempted to shield divorces from public view. Much of the interest in sealing divorce records comes as more than 30 states have posted court records online. Statutes similar to California’s have been approved in New Hampshire and Connecticut.

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