Estate of Hearst

Decision Date03 March 1977
Citation136 Cal.Rptr. 821,67 Cal.App.3d 777
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE of William Randolph HEARST, Dec'd. TRUSTEES OF the TRUST CREATED BY ARTICLE SECOND (B) OF the WILL of William Randolph HEARST, Deceased, Appellants, v. Leland LUBINSKI et al., Respondents. Leland LUBINSKI and Peter Wiley, Petitioners, v. SUPERIOR COURT of the State of California FOR the COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, Respondent, TRUSTEES OF the TRUST CREATED BY ARTICLE SECOND (B) OF the WILL of William Randolph HEARST, Deceased, Real Parties in Interest. Civ. 50399, 49842.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Flint & Mackay, Los Angeles, Philip M. Battaglia, Beverly Hills, Richard I. Gilchrist, Los Angeles, and William S. Walter, Salinas, for Trustees of the Trust Created by Article Second (b) of the Will of William R. Hearst, Deceased.

Gary D. Sowards, Fred Okrand, Jill Jakes, Los Angeles, and Mark D. Rosenbaum, Beverly Hills, for Leland Lubinski and Peter Wiley.

FLEMING, Associate Justice.

Trustees under the will of William Randolph Hearst (Trustees) secured orders from the probate court on 26 March 1974 and 5 June 1975 cutting off public access to and sealing the probate files in Estate of Hearst. Thereafter, on 21 July 1976, on Trustees' further petition to seal the files the court declared it had 'no authority to seal a Probate file and bar the public access thereto absent a statute granting such power' and entered an order vacating its prior orders. The court then stayed its vacation order to allow Trustees to take an appeal, which they have done. 1 Two members of the press (Newsmen) who opposed Trustees' petition below sought mandamus from this court to annul the probate court's stay and thereby open the probate file in Estate of Hearst to public inspection. We continued the stay to prevent the appeal from becoming moot, and we accelerated briefing of the appeal in order to resolve the issue expeditiously.

In view of the issuance of our own stay to allow effective appellate review, we deny the petition for mandate.

On the appeal, we note that the order appealed from represents an exercise of the court's continuing probate jurisdiction over the testamentary trust of William Randolph Hearst. As such the order is not properly appealable (Prob.Code, § 1240) but is reviewable on certiorari. (Fredrickson v. Superior Court (1952) 38 Cal.2d 593, 597, 241 P.2d 541; Lilienkamp v. Superior Court (1939) 14 Cal.2d 293, 303--304, 93 P.2d 1008.) We also note that the principal reason for limiting appeals in probate matters is to prevent delay in the distribution of estates (Conservatorship of Smith (1970) 9 Cal.App.3d 324, 327, 88 Cal.Rptr. 119), a factor not relevant to the controversy here. We therefore treat Trustees' appeal as an application for writ of certiorari to review the instant proceedings, and we grant the writ because it involves a question of public importance appropriate for resolution. (Cf. State Board of Equalization v. Superior Court (1935) 5 Cal.App.2d 374, 378, 42 P.2d 1076; People v. Superior Court (1947) 29 Cal.2d 754, 756, 178 P.2d 1.)

The gravamen of Trustees' petition asking the probate court to seal the files and will in Estate of Hearst was that members of the Hearst family, including minors and family members who have changed their surname by marriage, would be in grave danger of their lives and property if their identities were discovered through use of the probate files in Estate of Hearst, files which contain periodic accountings and pertinent material dealing with the testamentary trust from the time of Hearst's death to the present. As evidence of such imminent danger Trustees filed newspaper clippings reporting numerous bombings, threats to the lives of family members, and events related to the notorious kidnapping of Patricia Hearst. Most of these events occurred in early 1976 and suggested that the Hearst family had become a target for various lawless radical organizations. Although the whereabouts and identities of prominent members of the Hearst family and their properties were admittedly public knowledge, Trustees asserted that use of the material in the probate files would expose many hitherto unnoticed persons as members of the family and reveal the location of their homes and properties, this because periodic accountings filed on behalf of the trust identified the beneficiaries and their home addresses. Further, the accounting would pinpoint property holdings of the Hearst trust which, to date, have not been publicly identified. Trustees asked the court to exercise its inherent jurisdiction to control its records by sealing the files in the Hearst estate until such time as threats to members of the family had dissipated and danger to their lives and property had ended.

Challenging this right, Newsmen assert that the probate files of the superior court are public records, and that to exclude reporters from viewing them would constitute a prior restraint on their First Amendment right to gather and publish information in the public domain. They rely on the socalled 'gag order' cases such as Nebraska Press Assoc. v. Stuart (1976) 427 U.S. 539, 96 S.Ct. 2791, 49 L.Ed.2d 683, and Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn (1975) 420 U.S. 469, 95 S.Ct. 1029, 43 L.Ed.2d 328, holding that the party seeking to prevent publication of truthful newsmedia presentations carries a heavy burden to justify prior restraint on privileged First Amendment communication and commentary. They point to cases establishing the right of reporters to be present at court trials absent compelling reasons for their exclusion, and cite State ex rel. Gore Newspaper Co. v. Tyson (Fla.App.1975) 313 So.2d 777, wherein the appellate court restrained a trial judge from conducting a marital dissolution proceeding in a closed courtroom, even though both parties had requested exclusion of the press. The court there stated that court proceedings are to be conducted 'in the sunshine,' that a court may not enshroud its proceedings in secrecy 'solely to accommodate litigants.' (p. 787.)

Although the California Public Records Act (Gov.Code, §§ 6250ff.) does not apply to court records (see § 6252(a)), there can be no doubt that court records are public records, 2 available to the public in general, including news reporters, unless a specific exception makes specific records non-public. (See Craemer v. Superior Court (1968) 265 Cal.App.2d 216, 220--222, 71 Cal.Rptr. 193.) To prevent secrecy in public affairs public policy makes public records and documents available for public inspection by newsmen and members of the general public alike. (Craemer, supra, at 222, 71 Cal.Rptr. 193; Bruce v. Gregory (1967) 65 Cal.2d 666, 677, 56 Cal.Rptr. 265, 423 P.2d 193.) Statutory exceptions exist (see e.g. exemptions under Gov.Code, § 6254; see also list of statutory exceptions in Craemer, supra, 265 Cal.App.2d at 220--221, fn. 4, 71 Cal.Rptr. 193), as do judicially-created exceptions, generally temporary in nature, exemplified by such cases as Craemer, supra, and Rosato v. Superior Court (1975) 51 Cal.App.3d 190, 124 Cal.Rptr. 427, which involved temporary sealing of grand jury transcripts during criminal trials to protect defendant's right to a fair trial free from adverse advance publicity. Clearly, a court has inherent power to control its own records to protect rights of litigants before it, but 'where there is no contrary statute or countervailing public policy, the right to inspect public records must be freely allowed.' (Craemer, supra, 265 Cal.App.2d at 222, 71 Cal.Rptr. at 199.) The court in Craemer suggested that countervailing public policy might come into play as a result of events that tend to undermine individual security, personal liberty, or private property, or that injure the public or the public good.

The sealing orders under scrutiny here do not operate as prior restraint on the press, as did the 'gag orders' discussed in the United States Supreme Court cases, cited Supra, and in such California cases as Sun Co. of San Bernardino v. Superior Court (1973) 29 Cal.App.3d 815, 105 Cal.Rptr. 873, and Younger v. Smith (Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court) (1973) 30 Cal.App.3d 138, 106 Cal.Rptr. 225.) Rather, 'neither the press nor the petitioners were named in the protective or seal orders, . . . they were not subject to their terms, and . . . those orders did not purport to operate as a direct restraint on newspersons from publishing any information . . .' (Rosato v. Superior Court, supra, 51 Cal.App.3d at 207, 124 Cal.Rptr. at 438). Accordingly, the so-called 'clear and present danger test' does not apply, and the issue is the reasonableness of the trial court's sealing and unsealing orders under the circumstances of the case. (See Rosato, supra, 51 Cal.App.3d at 208, 124 Cal.Rptr. 427; Craemer, supra, 265 Cal.App.2d at 225--226, 71 Cal.Rptr. 193.)

In considering reasonableness of the various orders of the court, we point out, first, that no statute exempts probate files from the status of public records, and that when individuals employ the public powers of state courts to accomplish private ends, such as the establishment and supervision of long-term testamentary trusts, they do so in full knowledge of the possibly disadvantageous circumstance that the documents and records filed in the trust will be open to public inspection. To some extent they can protect against the disadvantage of publicity by arranging for the service of papers on individual beneficiaries through their attorneys or through post-office-box addresses. Alternatively, they can eschew court-regulated devices for transmission of inherited wealth and rely on private arrangements such as Inter vivos gifts, joint tenancies, and so-called 'living' or grantor trusts. But when the parties perceive advantages in obtaining continuing court supervision over their affairs, thereby projecting...

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