Hamilton County judges say privacy of job applicants outweighs Public Records Act

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports today about an unusual move by two Hamilton County judges to seal information about applicants to that county’s Clerk and Master position, issuing an order without any pending litigation before their courts.

The newspaper had requested a list of applicants to the $103,795 job, which is appointed by the judges as one of their administrative duties.

At first, one of the judges, Chancellor W. Frank Brown, responded to the request saying the court does not believe the public has a right to names, and media should offer the same confidentiality to candidates for the clerk and master post that it gives to victims of rape and sexual assaults.

Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon quoted Elisha Hodge, open records counsel for the state of Tennessee, saying the Open Records Act does not exempt applicants for public office.

Hamilton County Chancellor Frank Brown

Hamilton County Chancellor Frank Brown

The next step by the judges, Brown and Chancellor Jeffery Atherton, was to issue an order to seal the applications. In the order, they say that one or more the applicants have “articulated concerns relating to privacy and potential interference with employment and client relations” should their applications become disclosed.

“….it appearing that under the circumstances interests of privacy of the inquiring individuals in the documents and related information, even if considered ‘public records,’ outweigh the public’s right to know,” they wrote.

The order is highly unusual.

But there is one case in Tennessee that is similar. In that case more than a decade ago, the city attorney for Lebanon requested a court order to seal a settlement agreement its insurance company had reached with the widow of an innocent man shot to death by police after they arrived at the wrong house.

The widow did not file a lawsuit, the city admitted liability and a settlement was reached outside of any court.

When The Tennessean asked for settlement agreement, the city asked and got a circuit court judge to issue a protective order.

The newspaper challenged the protective order, saying the judge had no jurisdiction to issue such an order. The Court of Appeals agreed in a February 2002 ruling saying the order was of no effect because the court had no jurisdiction — there had been no action commenced to give the trial court jurisdiction to enter a protective order.

Later, the newspaper won attorney’s fees.








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