Divorce cases sealed from the public eye are rare in Georgia, but there are two recent high-profile examples in Richmond County.
U.S. Attorney Edward Tarver has filed for divorce from his wife, Beverly Tarver, but the financial information disclosed in the proceedings was closed to the public by Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett. His attorney, Shawn Hammond, wouldn’t speak to the specifics of the case, but said he’s been counsel on more than 2,500 divorces and this is his first to be sealed.
“It’s really uncommon,” Hammond said.
The other case is that of Joe Neal Jr. and his ex-wife, Carolyn, who filed two divorce cases in Richmond County. Neal is a prominent attorney and one-time candidate for general solicitor, who followed his father into practicing law. Both he and his wife are charged with rape and providing alcohol to someone under the age of 21. At their recent bond hearing, a prosecutor said the couple plied a teenage girl with marijuana and alcohol Dec. 16 and attempted to have sex with her.
The couple – at 43, Neal is 20 years her senior – married May 28, but were living apart by September, according to court records. Joe Neal filed for divorce Oct. 4, saying the marriage was “irretrievably broken” and her lawyer filed an answer and counterclaim Oct. 12. But exactly what was said in the Oct. 12 answer and his amended complaint Oct. 13 remain under wraps because they were sealed five days later for 99 years by Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig.
Craig’s order says they are stricken from the record as “scandalous, impertinent and inappropriate pleadings.”
The only way to have that seal lifted is through a court order. Whether the “scandalous” details are germane to criminal allegations of an attempted threesome with an intoxicated teenager remains unclear. District Attorney Ashley Wright said information in civil cases is sometimes used for prosecution, such as custody cases with the Department of Family and Children’s Services. She wouldn’t comment on her office’s intentions in a pending case.
The Tarver and Neal cases represent two explanations of sealed divorce cases.
Attorney Andrew Tisdale represented Carolyn Neal in her second divorce case with Joe Neal. In some cases lawyers add sordid details and names in complaints instead of simply outlining allegations of adultery, Tisdale said.
“Complaints and answers should not read like a cheap dimestore novel,” he said.
Some allegations later prove untrue, but the harm is already done. Tisdale gives the example of a recent client whose security clearance was placed in jeopardy by false claims that he suffered a mental illness. The other risk is that a child grows up and reads the dirty details of his parents’ divorce at the courthouse. Tisdale estimated that only held true for about 1 percent of his divorce cases.
The latest case law grants judges “extremely broad discretion” in determining what type of privacy concerns outweigh public information.
Chief Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet was the first to receive the Tarver divorce case in February. He sealed the case for 30 years, which he later said was a clerical error. Padgett was assigned the case by Overstreet and ordered the financial information and addresses sealed at least until the case is finalized.
In the order to seal records, Tarver is identified as an “acknowledged public figure” who will be required to list in detail “all of their personal and family’s financial information to include home addresses and bank accounts.”
Tarver elaborates in an affidavit that his authority as a public servant could be “compromised by virtue of having a contested divorce played out in the public arena.”
“Private and embarassing facts will likely be disclosed which have no legitimate public interest or benefit,” Tarver continues.
Tisdale said even in cases of ordinary citizens some documents are being left out of the public record with the judge’s consent. These include settlement agreements containing bank account numbers and social security numbers today’s identity thieves could use for malicious purposes.
“There’s a balancing test to determine what harm could come to the parties,” Tisdale said.