Today’s list of Arkansas Supreme Court cases included a brief mention that caught my eye:
It was a request by Larry Walther, director of Arkansas Finance And Administration, that the state’s appeal of a case against Welspun Tubular, the Little Rock pipe maker, be heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court rather than the Court of Appeals, where the case is currently lodged.
Funny thing. You can’t find out what this case is about and the state of Arkansas won’t say.
The case arose in Pulaski Circuit Court. A notation when the appeal was filed in December 2019 says “entire record pursuant to consent confidentiality agreement and agreed protective order” was sealed.
I’ve been down this road before, first in Faulkner County where the right sorts of people can get the benefit of sealing of the entire record of divorce cases. I stumbled on this in the case of a divorce of a major corporate executive whose ex-wife was fighting over the value of the company her family helped found. There’s no doubt that the law provides for protection of proprietary information in court cases. But to wipe the entire record of the existence of a case from the court record?
This flies in the face of well-established Arkansas case law that court should be conducted in public. I repeat, with slight modification, what I said about funny business in Faulkner County:
Courts serve the public, not their litigants. The public record of their action is the only means of accountability we have. Yes, some matters, particularly involving children but also including business secrets, may be sealed as to specific hearings and documents. But the record that a case was filed, that a decree was entered and that orders exist — enforceable by the public’s court — should be open to the public. How else to know if orders were followed? People with connections and money should not be afforded privacy not available to everybody else.
I’m ready to believe that there’s material in the Welspun case deserving of protection. But deserving any but the scantest indication that the case even exists?
I asked the Department of Finance and Administration about this case. Could I get a general idea what it was about? The ever-affable Scott Hardin responded promptly as always, but disappointingly:
I consulted with our legal team. As a policy, DFA does not comment on active litigation to which we are a party.
Sorry I can’t provide more info. Let me know how I can help.
But DF&A DOES comment from time to time on its cases. And, trust me, any day of the week you can find dozens of cases filed by DF&A that are spread on the court record, without seal, as to the basic cause of action, typically tax liens, with a listing of the amount being sought.
I just hope the secrecy about Welspun doesn’t relate to the company’s emergence as a political tool for Republicans. President Biden canceled approval of the Keystone pipeline project, a job for which Welspun had a contract to supply pipe (some of it already made.) It has so far refused to say if any layoffs have resulted in Little Rock, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from Leslie Rutledge to Tim Griffin to French Hill to Tom Cotton to David Ray try to make Welspun the poster child for Biden’s supposed ruination of jobs in Arkansas.
This week, Rutledge claimed “Arkansans have lost jobs” because of the action. I asked what jobs. Her office supplied a link to a Fox News article that mentioned no jobs at Welspun but quoted a Fouke couple who said they “going to be able to have the opportunity to work on the Keystone.”
Will the Arkansas Supreme Court continue secrecy for Welspun? Time will tell.