Roane Circuit Judge Tom Evans ruled Monday that a hearing in the Tawney vs. Columbia Natural Resources gas well royalty case could not be closed to the press and public.
The hearing that originally had been set for Monday of last week was continued after this newspaper raised objections.
It took place in public this Monday after Evans rejected arguments in favor of closing the hearing.
Since a $404 million verdict in favor of over 10,000 royalty owners was returned in January, attorneys for the gas companies have filed several motions asking Evans to set aside some of the punitive damages.
In considering those requests, Evans wanted to hear about pre-trial negotiations, to see if they were conducted in good faith.
Attorneys for the gas companies did not want to discuss pre-trial negotiations in public and asked that the hearing be closed. Attorneys representing the royalty owners did not object to having a closed hearing.
A hearing on the closure took place this Monday, when Calhoun County attorney Loren Howley argued the newspaper's position.
Howley said the burden of proof to show the need to close the hearing was on the parties who wanted the hearing closed.
Howley said since the jury had already completed its work and been excused, there was no reason to hold closed hearings to discuss potential evidence.
Defense attorney Ancil Ramey said that if the appeal was successful, the case could be before another jury in the future.
Howley said whatever pre-trial settlement offers may have been made, they would pale in comparison to the verdict that she said could also taint a future jury.
"The settlement negotiations will be nothing compared to a $400 million verdict," Howley said.
Ramey said parties in other cases in the future might not want to engage in pre-trial negotiations if they thought those details would be revealed later.
He said pre-trial mediation and the efforts that go into it are protected by attorney-client privilege.
"You're opening that curtain to the mediation process," Ramey said. "People in future settlement negotiations might not be that willing to compromise."
Howley disagreed and said there were other factors to consider.
"It's important for the public to know what happened so they can protect their own interests," she said.
Ramey said that information from the closed hearing could be made public later on, at the judge's discretion.
In handing down his decision, Evans said the law expressed an "overwhelming interest" in allowing court hearings to be public.
"The reason the law favors openness is to instill public confidence in what takes place here in the courtroom," the judge said.
"This case has gained a considerable amount of notoriety," Evans said. "But that is why these hearings are to be open to the public."
"They are to be open so the public can see and judge for themselves what is right," Evans said.
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