Last night, City Paper received word that Richard Mellon Scaife's divorce has moved to the trial stage -- but that arguments are taking place in a closed courtroom, with no access to the public or press.
City Paper confirmed that information with Family Court judge Alan Hertzberg's office this morning. And in fact courtroom proceedings are taking place even now.
We asked for a copy of the order closing the proceedings this morning, but were told that the order, too, was under seal. In other words, we don't know what's going on inside the courtroom -- and we don't even know why we can't find out.
News editor Charlie Deitch and I went to Hertzberg's chambers this morning, and were told that if we wanted to petition the court to open the proceeding, we would have to first serve notice to Scaife and his estranged wife about our intention to do so. A clerk in Hertzberg's office told us such notice must be given to both parties seven days in advance. We recieved similar instruction from the office of David Wecht, who is the administrative judge in charge of the county's Family Court branch.
Naturally, we are concerned that by that time, the trial may have ended, making the attempt to open the proceedings moot. City Paper is currently discussing our next step with attorneys.
It's well-settled that courtroom proceedings should be open to the press and the public, who have a vested stake in how justice is carried out. Especially in this case -- where Pittsburghers have an obvious interest in how Scaife's marital estate is divided. Not only does Scaife own one of the city's two daily newspapers, whose future may be affected by the outcome of the case, but Scaife-controlled foundations contribute millions of dollars a year to national think tanks as well as local nonprofit groups like the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the Carnegie Library of McKeesport.
As we have reported previously, however, Hertzberg has sought to allow the Scaife case to proceed largely outside public scrutiny. Written pleadings have been under court seal, just as the actual trial apparently is today.
Hertzberg's attempt to keep the proceedings under wraps hasn't been entirely successful. Post-Gazette reporter Dennis Roddy was able to gain access to pleadings which were posted online, due to an apparent error by an employee in the court's administrative offices
What's more, the Scaifes themselves have spoken candidly -- and in intimate detail -- about the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of their marriage. A year ago, Vanity Fair ran an article titled "A Vast Right-Wing Hypocrisy" in which the two accused each other of a variety of sins. The story candidly features allegations of alcohol abuse, adultery, and an incident in which Mrs. Scaife allegedly "kicked Dick in the crotch [and] his testicles swelled to such a size that he had to be taken to the emergency room."
In the meantime, it's well worth asking why it falls to us -- a humble weekly who can barely afford office coffee, let alone high-powered attorneys -- to challenge these closed-door proceedings. Usually our larger media brethren are the ones to demand this sort of access.
It is perhaps no surprise that the Trib isn't anxious to lift the lid on its publisher's travails. The Trib is also a "news exchange partner" with WTAE-TV, and Scaife owns an AM radio station, KQV. But the P-G has been silent as well ... even though today's Post-Gazette features a front-page story about how the paper is seeking access to closed proceedings surrounding a lawsuit filed against West Virginia University.
We'll keep you updated on our efforts to open this proceeding.