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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 7, 2006

Lawsuit papers unsealed

By Ken Kobayashi and Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writers

In affirming the public's right to see court hearings and records, the Hawai'i Supreme Court yesterday ordered the unsealing of a pending Big Island malpractice civil case that includes 15 volumes of court documents.

In a two-page ruling, the high court unanimously found that the participants in the civil case failed to show "strong countervailing reasons" to overcome the presumption that judicial records and proceedings should be open to the public.

The court granted a writ sought by D.R. Partners, which does business as The Hawaii Tribune-Herald and West Hawaii Today, two Big Island newspapers that challenged the sealing.

"The writ should send a loud message to judges, lawyers and parties to litigation that the courts are the public's business," said Honolulu attorney Jeffrey Portnoy, who represented the two newspapers. "Arbitrary decisions to seal court records won't be tolerated."

The court case involves a 2004 lawsuit by George Miyashiro, former president and chairman of Jack's Tours Inc. Miyashiro originally sued the Hilo law firm of Roehrig, Roehrig, Wilson and Hara. Also sued were Glenn Hara, Stanley Roehrig, Carol Miyashiro, Jeff Miyashiro and Title Guaranty Co.

The case was sealed on April 11 by Circuit Judge George Masuoka of Kaua'i, who was assigned the case because Hara is now a Big Island judge. It was supposed to be sealed temporarily, but it still remained confidential when the newspapers asked for the writ on July 26.

Masuoka notified the court he was not going to respond to the newspapers' request for a writ.

Big Island lawyer Brian De Lima said his client, Stanley Roehrig, is the only civil defendant left in the case.

De Lima and David Gierlach, a lawyer for Miyashiro, separately notified the court they didn't object to unsealing records involving the two parties.

The high court ruled that as of yesterday, Masuoka and the Big Island court clerk were prohibited from enforcing the April 11 order.

The malpractice case, which is intertwined with two other civil lawsuits, has not yet been resolved.

The suit alleged Roehrig and the others were to blame when Miyashiro was unable to obtain stock shares of Jack's Tours in the aftermath of another lawsuit.

Part of the dispute in the current suit revolves around the issue of whether Miyashiro can use information from a 1999 lawsuit filed by Jack's Tours against Miyashiro. The settlement of that suit was sealed in 2001, according to a filing by De Lima.

Portnoy said the sealing of the entire court file is "very unusual," but that he doesn't know how many other cases are kept secret.

"We have to hope there aren't very many, and that the issuance of a writ, which is an extraordinary remedy, will make it far less likely that any court is going to permit the sealing of any court pleading, let alone an entire file" without establishing an overriding reason for the secrecy, he said.

Reach Ken Kobayashi at kkobayashi@honoluluadvertiser.com and Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.