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Judge orders file unsealed in long-running France dispute

- gwright@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Aug. 04, 2011

A Mecklenburg judge today ordered the unsealing of secret documents in NASCAR Chairman Brian France's legal battle with his former wife.

District Judge Jena Culler voided an order by a former judge sealing the documents in 2008.

"The public has a right to access court files...," Culler announced in court. "I feel very strongly that these file should be unsealed."

It will likely be months before the files are unsealed. Brian France's attorneys are expected to appeal Culler's ruling.

Ray Owens, an attorney for the Observer and its news partner WCNC-TV, had urged the judge at a hearing last month to unseal the documents. "It's time for openness," Owen told Culler.

Johnny Stephenson, one of Brian France's attorneys, argued that then-District Judge Todd Owens's order in 2008 to seal the documents had not been overturned and was still in effect. "The order is the law of this case," he told the judge. "And we have to abide by it."

Brian France has accused his ex-wife, Megan France, of breaching their separation agreement. He wants to scrap the agreement that calls for him to pay the mother of his two children $9 million, as well as more than $40,000 a month in alimony and child support.

During today's hearing, Culler announced that she was voiding Owens' order to seal the documents. The judge said that a number of details about the Frances' confidential separation agreement had been made public during the litigation.

Those disclosures, Culler said, warranted that the documents be unsealed.

The judge also talked about the difficulties of holding hearings in open court about documents that are under seal and issues that are confidential. She has had to talk to the Frances' attorneys about what attorneys could say in open court and how much details they could disclose.

"This is simply not how our courts are supposed to run," Culler said.

This is the second time Culler has ordered the documents unsealed in the Frances' litigation. The Observer and WCNC first challenged Judge Owens' ruling to seal the documents in November 2009, asking that the documents be unsealed and the court hearings kept open to the public.

The following month, Culler ordered that the secret court file be unsealed. Brian France appealed.

In February, the N.C. Court of Appeals ordered that the Frances' litigation be held in open court. The appeals court judges, however, didn't overturn Owens' order sealing the documents.

Instead, the appeals court left it to the state judge presiding over the Frances' litigation to decide which, if any, documents should be made public.

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