April 13, 2011
Suit over family court records dismissed
Public defender who sued is asking state to investigate why documents were released
A state Supreme Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit Public Defender Keith Dayton brought against Cortland County Legislature Chairman Jack Williams in 2009 claiming Williams did not rightfully acquire family court documents.
Dayton now plans to bring the matter before the Office of Court Administration, the administrative arm of the state court system.
County Attorney Ed Purser reported the March 31 court ruling Tuesday at the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee meeting.
Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dowd ruled Dayton did not have the authority to sue on behalf of his clients, since he did not have signed agreements from them allowing him to litigate on their behalf. Dowd further stated Williams had the right to obtain the transcripts since Family Court granted him access to the documents.
Dayton had sued Williams claiming he improperly acquired and disseminated Family Court transcripts in his capacity as Judiciary and Public Safety Committee chair at the time.
Dayton said Tuesday he is fine with Dowd’s ruling.
He said he was never given the transcripts that Williams had acquired so he could not positively identify the clients to request their approval. Dayton added that he thinks he knows who the clients are but could not positively identify them for the purposes of the 2009 lawsuit.
Dayton further said he was satisfied that Williams, his attorney Robert Shafer and Dowd all “appreciated the privacy rights of family court clients.”
“Regardless of the outcome of this I am comfortable my clients’ private information was not put out there inappropriately,” Dayton said.
Williams, who said he heard of the ruling Saturday, said he is “certainly pleased,” adding the decision speaks for itself.
Dayton said he will ask the Office of Court Administration to investigate how Williams obtained the transcripts to begin with.
Dayton said County Judge Julie Campbell released the transcripts of the Family Court documents, something he wants to ensure does not happen in the future.
“Anyone asking for those has to go through specific procedures. That is, FOIL (a state Freedom of Information Law request) if you are not a party to the case or another procedure if they are a party to the case,” Dayton said.
Dayton said not only did Williams not file a Freedom of Information Law request for the transcripts, but a subsequent Freedom of Information Law request filed by county Conflict Attorney Tom Miller was rejected.
“Now the judge will have to answer when a legislator for political purposes is doing an investigation ... how is he handed over a Family Court transcript,” Dayton said.
Williams was investigating at the time the feasibility of disbanding the Public Defender Office.
Williams said he submitted a written request to the Family Court Clerk requesting specific information.
Dayton also wants to know how Williams knew the transcripts existed, saying only 1 percent of Family Court cases are transcribed.
Williams would not say how he knew the transcripts existed but said he did not get any information from any employee of the clerk’s office.
Williams defended his acquisition of the transcripts, saying one of them was public and available on the county clerk website. Williams further stated it is “very possible for people to attend family court hearings.”
Dayton said he will ask the clients to endorse the investigation he plans to bring before the Office of Court Administration so that the case cannot be dismissed on a technicality. The court’s decision might take months, he said.
Campbell did not return phone calls for comment by press time.
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