In an unusual move, a Suffolk Superior Court judge closed a hearing Friday and impounded all the documents involving a legal fight between a powerful central Massachusetts Republican family and the state official charged with investigating campaign finance violations.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by state Sen. Ryan Fattman of Webster; his wife Stephanie Fattman, the Worcester County Register of Probate; and a number of related individuals and campaign committees against Michael Sullivan, the head of the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Judge Christine Roach's decision Friday suggests the Fattmans are challenging “certain aspects” of the way Sullivan is handling an investigation involving them, including allegedly making legal errors, abusing his discretion, and acting arbitrarily and capriciously. But it’s not clear from the document what exactly OCFP is investigating. The Fattmans have argued that all the proceedings should permanently be closed to the public.
WBUR petitioned the court to gain access to Friday's hearing. WBUR's attorney Jeffrey Pyle argued there is a strong public interest in opening the proceedings, since civil court proceedings are normally public and this particular case involves two public officials and a state agency.
"These elected officials are subject to public scrutiny — as is the defendant, OCPF," wrote Pyle, a partner with Boston law firm Prince Lobel.
But Roach denied WBUR’s request to attend Friday’s hearing and has refused to release key documents in the case.
Roach issued an oral order Wednesday “preliminarily" impounding the documents. But the court rules she cited say an impoundment order can be entered only after a hearing and a public, written finding that there is good cause to restrict access to the documents. Neither of those steps happened before her initial order.
After the closed court hearing Friday, Roach issued a written ruling saying she found there was good cause to temporarily impound the lawsuit and certain other documents, because OCPF's investigation is confidential.
Roach, however, said she planned to hold another hearing on March 26 to decide whether to permanently impound the papers, saying she also wanted to consider other factors, such as the First Amendment right to access the courts and the community interest in the case. The decision says WBUR will be permitted to attend the second hearing.
Peter Caruso Sr., an Andover attorney who has frequently helped media fight for access to court proceedings over the years, said blocking public access to documents or hearings in civil cases is justified only in rare, exceptional circumstances — something he doubted existed here.
"To close a courtroom in Massachusetts is generally unheard of," Caruso said. "That's because we are not in Russia, not in Cuba and certainly not part of a star chamber. All court proceedings must be open to the public."
Both OCPF and the attorney representing the Fattmans and other plaintiffs declined comment. Sullivan's attorney did not respond to requests for comment. The judge's decision suggests the attorney general, which is representing OCPF, generally did not take a position on impounding the court documents.
In addition to the Fattmans, the lawsuit was also brought by their respective campaign committees, the Sutton Republican Town Committee (which has aided the Fattmans’ campaigns over the years), and several people affiliated with the committees, including two other family members.
OCPF has not publicly accused the Fattmans of any violations so far. Ryan Fattman, the assistant Senate minority leader, was first elected to the Senate in 2014 after two terms in the House, his wife, Stephanie Fattman, was first elected Worcester's Register of Probate in 2014.