Why are some local high-profile divorce cases hidden from the public?

FORT WORTH -- Texas Rangers co-chairman Bob Simpson is getting a divorce from Janice Simpson, his wife of 19 years. But you won’t find a record of it by searching digital court records at the Tarrant County district clerk’s office.

The same goes for the divorce of former Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton and his wife, Katie, even though it was widely reported in 2015. And a search for records of Van Cliburn Competition winner Vadym Kholodenko’s divorce from his wife, Sofya Tsygankova, turns up nothing, even though it was widely reported when she was arrested for killing their children in 2016.

“I really am kind of baffled that you can’t find the Simpson and Josh Hamilton divorce proceedings,” said Tom Vick, a Weatherford attorney who was speaking for himself but is president of the State Bar of Texas. “It’s one thing to not be able to see what is in (the file), it is another to not even know it exists.”

A Star-Telegram investigation found a number of cases that cannot be accessed through the county’s computer system. The documents for about a half-dozen cases the Star-Telegram researched don’t appear, raising concerns about whether the public can actually find all the open records in Tarrant County’s family courts.

Blake Hawthorne, Texas Supreme Court clerk, said a basic level of data should be available to the public. This includes the names of litigants, their attorneys, the judge and the types of documents filed.

“If you’re going to have an access system online for most cases, you should be able to know of the existence of the case,” said Hawthorne, an advocate for electronic access to court records.

Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder and his staff were unable to explain why the Simpson, Hamilton and Kholodenko case files couldn’t be found online. His office of 140 full-time and 25 part-time employees handle roughly 60,000 new court filings a year — half of them in the family courts.

His staff, along with the judiciary, have broader access to the information than what is publicly available and anyone can ask the staff for help. The public can also submit a written request for public information to his office, Wilder said. But only if you know what you’re looking for.

“Ninety-nine percent of the cases are going to be easily searchable,” Wilder said.

How attorneys file a lawsuit — including the use of initials to mask the identity of litigants — can complicate searches, but Wilder said he has to accept a case as it is filed. Also, if an attorney says a document contains “confidential and sensitive information,” it is pulled from the internet, complicating an online search.

Charla Moore, a family law attorney in Arlington and a former associate family law judge, said it shouldn’t be so hard to find out if someone is getting divorced in Tarrant County.

Being able to search family court records — either online or at the courthouse — goes beyond a prurient interest in people’s personal lives. Companies use the system for background checks on prospective employees, investors will examine a prospective partner’s past, and people may want to verify the past of a possible mate.

“We have public records for a reason,” Moore said. “Records should be open, not for misuse, but … there ought to be a way to protect people’s privacy and still allow a reasonable level of freedom of information.”

Go here to keep reading this article from the Star-Telegram.

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