Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, No. C8-86-65

CourtSupreme Court of Minnesota (US)
Writing for the CourtAMDAHL; Under this standard of review, we hold that Judge Schumacher did not abuse his discretion by denying access to the settlement documents. The historical and philosophical privacy of settlement documents, along with the relevant facts and circu
Citation392 N.W.2d 197
Parties13 Media L. Rep. 1704 MINNEAPOLIS STAR & TRIBUNE CO., Gannett Broadcasting, Inc., Joint Media Committee of Minnesota, Inc., Midwest Radio and Television, et al., Society of Professional Journalists, Respondents, v. The Honorable Robert H. SCHUMACHER, Judge of Hennepin County District Court, Bradley A. Wicks, Executor for the Estate of E. Allen Wicks, and Janenne M. Wicks, deceased, et al., Petitioners, Appellants, Edward F. Stasik, Trustee for the Heirs and Next-of-Kin of Agnes R. Yakymi, f/k/a Agnes R. Stasik, decedent, Respondent, Galaxy Airline, Inc., and Hy Thayer, petitioners, Appellants, Desert Palace, Inc., et al., Defendants, Catherine Aune, as Trustee for the Heirs and Next-of-Kin of Gordon G. Aune, decedent, Connie Granfors, as Trustee for the Heirs of Mary Granfors, Deceased; Connie Granfors, as Trustee for the Heirs of Jack Granfors, Deceased, Petitioner, Appellants.
Docket NumberNo. C8-86-65
Decision Date08 August 1986

Page 197

392 N.W.2d 197
13 Media L. Rep. 1704
MINNEAPOLIS STAR & TRIBUNE CO., Gannett Broadcasting, Inc.,
Joint Media Committee of Minnesota, Inc., Midwest
Radio and Television, et al., Society of
Professional Journalists, Respondents,
v.
The Honorable Robert H. SCHUMACHER, Judge of Hennepin County
District Court, Bradley A. Wicks, Executor for the Estate of
E. Allen Wicks, and Janenne M. Wicks, deceased, et al.,
Petitioners, Appellants,
Edward F. Stasik, Trustee for the Heirs and Next-of-Kin of
Agnes R. Yakymi, f/k/a Agnes R. Stasik, decedent, Respondent,
Galaxy Airline, Inc., and Hy Thayer, petitioners, Appellants,
Desert Palace, Inc., et al., Defendants,
Catherine Aune, as Trustee for the Heirs and Next-of-Kin of
Gordon G. Aune, decedent, Connie Granfors, as Trustee for
the Heirs of Mary Granfors, Deceased; Connie Granfors, as
Trustee for the Heirs of Jack Granfors, Deceased,
Petitioner, Appellants.
No. C8-86-65.
Supreme Court of Minnesota.
Aug. 8, 1986.

Page 199

Syllabus by the Court

1. The proper legal standard to apply when a party seeks to restrict access to settlement documents and transcripts made part of a civil court file by statute is the common law standard.

2. Under the common law standard, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it sealed the settlement documents and transcripts in question.

3. A non-party seeking to challenge a trial court's order restricting access to civil court files may intervene as of right under Minn.R.Civ.P. 24.01 for the limited purpose of challenging the court's order.

4. An intervenor whose request for access is denied may seek review of the trial court's ruling through a writ of prohibition.

Hubert H. Humphrey, III, Catharine F. Haukedahl, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., St. Paul, for Judge Schumacher.

Page 200

Erik J. Magnuson, James L. Foreman, Mary Cade, Minneapolis, for Bradley Wicks.

Boyd H. Ratchye, Donald W. Niles, St. Paul, for Galaxy.

Robert Johnson, Scott Koch, St. Paul, for Catherine & Gordon Aune.

Randall, Parmater, & Nereauv, Wayzata, for Mary & Connie Granfors.

Patricia A. Hirl, Minneapolis, for Mpls. Star & Trib.

Leslie J. Anderson, Minneapolis, for Gannett Broadcasting.

Paul R. Hannah, St. Paul, for Northwest Publications.

Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis, for MN Newspaper Assn.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

AMDAHL, Chief Justice.

The narrow question presented by this case is what legal standard applies when a party seeks to restrict access to settlement documents and transcripts that are made part of a civil court file by statute.

I.

In September and October of 1985, Judge Robert H. Schumacher of the Hennepin County District Court issued four orders directing that five civil court files be sealed. The files involved wrongful death suits that had been brought against Galaxy Airlines, Inc., and several others, after the crash of a Galaxy Airlines passenger airplane at Reno, Nevada, on January 21, 1985. The files were sealed at the request of the litigants after stipulated settlements were reached in each of the five cases. Judge Schumacher issued the orders after holding separate hearings in open court to determine how to distribute the settlement monies among the heirs of the deceased crash victims in each case. 1 The public and the media, however, were never informed of these hearings and consequently no one but the litigants attended.

The litigants requested that the files be sealed in order to protect the families of the deceased crash victims from public intrusion into their private lives and also to protect against influencing settlements of other suits against Galaxy involving the same air crash. The families believed that allowing the public access to these amounts could result in thefts, exploitation, trespass, and physical injury to them.

On November 21, 1985, Daniel Oberdorfer, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company (Star & Tribune), orally requested access to the files in question. The clerk of court denied his request based on the orders issued by Judge Schumacher. 2 On December 4, the Star & Tribune brought a motion before Judge Schumacher requesting permission to intervene in the five cases and asking that Judge Schumacher reconsider and quash his orders sealing the files. The Star & Tribune sought access to the files based on its common law, statutory, and constitutional rights to "inspect, copy, or otherwise have access to such official and/or public records."

Page 201

On December 23, 1985, a hearing was held on the Star & Tribune's motions. On January 3, 1986, Judge Schumacher issued an order granting the Star & Tribune's motion to intervene, but denying its motion to quash the original orders. Applying a common law balancing standard, Judge Schumacher reasoned that the privacy interests of the litigants in these cases outweighed the public interest of the Star & Tribune in access to the files. Judge Schumacher recognized "a general right to inspect and copy public records," but noted that this right was not absolute. Access could be denied in certain cases and the decision to permit access "is left to the sound discretion of the trial court--a discretion to be exercised in light of the relevant facts and circumstances of the particular case." Judge Schumacher acknowledged "the strong interest of the press in disseminating information," but held that this was outweighed by the privacy interests of the litigants, the effect disclosure would have on future settlements, and the fact that settling these cases would benefit the court and county by reducing the costs of litigation.

On January 8, 1986, the Star & Tribune, along with five other media representatives, filed a petition for a writ of prohibition with the Court of Appeals, seeking to have Judge Schumacher's orders vacated. They maintained that Judge Schumacher erred in applying a common law standard and asserted that a constitutional standard based on the first amendment freedoms of speech and press was the proper standard to apply in this case. The litigants, however, argued for the common law balancing approach, contending that access to the documents and transcripts in question does not give rise to the need for a constitutional standard. Under this approach, they argued, Judge Schumacher's orders must be affirmed.

On March 11, 1986, the Court of Appeals granted the writ of prohibition and vacated Judge Schumacher's orders by a 2-1 vote. See Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 383 N.W.2d 323 (Minn.App.1986). The majority adopted a constitutional standard for questions of access to civil files. It stated that a general presumption of openness existed in favor of access to all court files and records, and that a specific presumption in favor of access existed in this case because wrongful death settlements required court approval of the distribution of funds. The majority then reasoned that because the settlement documents had been discussed in "open court" the terms of the settlements had been made public, even though no one but the parties had attended the hearings. "Once information is made public," the majority stated, "its dissemination may not constitutionally be restrained." 383 N.W.2d at 327. Under this prior restraint analysis, the majority held that the interests raised by Judge Schumacher for denying access were speculative and insufficient to justify restricting access.

The dissent, however, asserted that the majority was applying a constitutional standard to this case when no such standard had ever been established by this court or the United States Supreme Court. It argued that only a common law right of access could be considered where civil action files are involved. Under this common law right, the interests outlined by Judge Schumacher outweighed those raised by the Star & Tribune. It therefore argued that Judge Schumacher's orders should be upheld.

By an order dated March 10, 1986, we stayed the Court of Appeals decision pending the outcome of an appeal to this court. On March 27, 1986, we granted the petitions for further review of Judge Schumacher and several of the original litigants. 3 We now reverse the Court of Appeals

Page 202

decision, vacate the writ of prohibition, and reinstate Judge Schumacher's amended orders.

II.

The parties disagree over the proper legal standard to be applied in this case. Appellants maintain that Judge Schumacher properly applied a common law balancing test and that, under our limited scope of review, his decision must be upheld. Respondents, on the other hand, argue that the prevailing case law from other jurisdictions establishes a constitutional standard based on the first amendment. We have never considered this issue and must therefore examine how other jurisdictions have sought to resolve it.

A. The Common Law Right of Access

It is undisputed that a common law right to inspect and copy civil court records exists. See, e.g., Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597, 98 S.Ct. 1306, 1311, 55 L.Ed.2d 570 (1977) ("It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy * * * judicial records and documents"); Newman v. Graddick, 696 F.2d 796 (11th Cir.1983); Joy v. North, 692 F.2d 880 (2d Cir.1982), cert. denied, 460 U.S. 1051, 103 S.Ct. 1498, 75 L.Ed.2d 930 (1983); Zenith Radio Corp. v. Matsushita, 529 F.Supp. 866, 875 (E.D.Pa.1981); In re Estate of Hearst, 67 Cal.App.3d 777, 136 Cal.Rptr. 821 (1977); State ex rel. Bilder v. Township of Delavan, 112 Wis.2d 539, 334 N.W.2d 252 (1983); see also Annot., 84 A.L.R.3d 598 (1978) (discussion of the common law right of access in the United States). The right to inspect and copy records is considered "fundamental to a democratic state," United States v. Mitchell, 551 F.2d 1252, 1258 (D.C.Cir.1976), rev'd on other grounds sub nom. Nixon, 435 U.S. 589, 98 S.Ct. 1306, 55 L.Ed.2d 570; and is based on the principle that "what transpires in the courtroom...

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81 practice notes
  • Skolnick v. Altheimer & Gray, No. 87320
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Illinois
    • March 23, 2000
    ...law right of access to court records is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy (Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197, 202 (Minn.1986)), in that citizens rely on information about our judicial system in order to form an educated and knowledgeable opinion o......
  • Franzwa v. City of Hacensack, Civil No. 06-3739 (JRT/RLE).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
    • July 3, 2008
    ...which there is no adequate remedy." State v. Deal, 740 N.W.2d 755, 769 (Minn. 2007), citing Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197 (Minn. 1986). State Courts have issued such a Writ in cases where a Court has ordered the production of evidence that is not clearly disco......
  • League of Women Voters Minn. v. Ritchie, No. A12–0920.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Minnesota (US)
    • August 27, 2012
    ...action; and (4) the applicant's interest is not adequately represented by existing parties. Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197, 207 (Minn.1986). All those seeking intervention contended that they satisfied each of the requirements. Alternatively, the proposed inter......
  • Grove Fresh Distributors, Inc. v. John Labatt Ltd., No. 90 C 5009.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • June 9, 1995
    ...process, but they have given it extremely different application." Id. at n. 290. Compare Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197, 206 (Minn.1986) (emphasizing the traditional privacy of settlements and the policy favoring settlements) with Bank of Am. Nat'l Trust & Sav.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
81 cases
  • Skolnick v. Altheimer & Gray, No. 87320
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Illinois
    • March 23, 2000
    ...law right of access to court records is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy (Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197, 202 (Minn.1986)), in that citizens rely on information about our judicial system in order to form an educated and knowledgeable opinion o......
  • Franzwa v. City of Hacensack, Civil No. 06-3739 (JRT/RLE).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
    • July 3, 2008
    ...which there is no adequate remedy." State v. Deal, 740 N.W.2d 755, 769 (Minn. 2007), citing Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197 (Minn. 1986). State Courts have issued such a Writ in cases where a Court has ordered the production of evidence that is not clearly disco......
  • League of Women Voters Minn. v. Ritchie, No. A12–0920.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Minnesota (US)
    • August 27, 2012
    ...action; and (4) the applicant's interest is not adequately represented by existing parties. Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197, 207 (Minn.1986). All those seeking intervention contended that they satisfied each of the requirements. Alternatively, the proposed inter......
  • Grove Fresh Distributors, Inc. v. John Labatt Ltd., No. 90 C 5009.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • June 9, 1995
    ...process, but they have given it extremely different application." Id. at n. 290. Compare Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumacher, 392 N.W.2d 197, 206 (Minn.1986) (emphasizing the traditional privacy of settlements and the policy favoring settlements) with Bank of Am. Nat'l Trust & Sav.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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