Judge keeps court closed in Saints, Pelicans ownership row

NEW ORLEANS (AP) A judge denied a motion by media outlets who sought to open court for next week's trial involving New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his estranged heirs.

Judge Kern Reese, who ruled Friday in New Orleans civil court, said he carefully weighed the public's constitutional right to access the court room against the 87-year-old Benson's privacy rights regarding his medical history.

''If Mr. Benson had brought forward the case and was seeking damages from this court, then that would surely be a public proceeding,'' Reese said. ''He is the defendant in the case and is having his health and his volition called into question.

''No person in this room would want their medical records disclosed to the public,'' Reese added.

Benson's daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, sued in January after being removed from ownership positions with the Saints and Pelicans. They have argued that their patriarch was not of sound mind when he decided to leave eventual control of the pro clubs and other business to his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004.

Tom Benson's attorneys filed a motion to have proceedings closed and the record sealed. Reese granted that motion last week, then several media outlets intervened in the case Thursday, asking the judge to reconsider.

The motion to open court was filed by New Orleans Hearst Television, Hearst Newspapers, Gannett and ESPN. Their attorney, Mary Ellen Roy, argued that high public interest in the case is reasonable not only because the teams have a passionate following, but also because they have received the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in public money in the form of subsidies, improvements to state-owned stadiums, tax breaks and favorable lease deals.

Roy also questioned why the judge could not close only those portions of trial, or redact only those portions of filed documents, which relate to sensitive medical information, while leaving the rest of the case open. She added that both the U.S. and Louisiana supreme courts have held that trials only should be closed when it is essential and necessary to protect the rights of a certain party. Even then, Roy said, trial closures should be ''narrowly tailored'' so as not to infringe on the public's right to know what's happening in court.

''Sealing everything and closing everything is not narrowly tailored,'' Roy said.

She said she would consult with her clients on whether to appeal. Trial is otherwise slated to begin on Monday.

Attorney Randall A. Smith, who represents Renee Benson and her children, attended Friday's hearing, sitting behind Roy.

''There's some hypocrisy in the position being taken by (Tom Benson's) legal team after having spent months making statements to the press about the case ... and spreading information about my clients, and a lot of misleading facts,'' Smith said after the hearing. ''So here, when we're going to have under-oath, sworn testimony, they want it closed.

''We're here to give Mr. Benson the protection we think he needs and deserves and we think the city needs and deserves, so the court can determine if the decision-making that's going on is actually based on facts - not information fed to him by others,'' Smith continued. ''Otherwise, it's not in his best interest. It's not in his family's best interest. It's not in the teams' best interest. It's not in the city's best interest.''

Renee Benson and her children still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars from Tom Benson, who had placed ownership shares of his teams in an irrevocable trust on his now-disowned heirs' behalf. But Tom Benson has evicted his estranged heirs from offices, fired them form executive positions and has sought to swap out assets in their trusts to remove their ownership stakes in his teams.

Benson's attempt to change the trusts is tied up in a separate lawsuit in federal court.

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