Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Nos. 03 CH 13908 & 02 CH 16157. Honorable John K. Madden, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Fitzgerald Smith
The Chicago Tribune (Tribune) appeals the denial of its motions to unseal documents and the court files in case Nos. 02 CH 16157 and 03 CH 13908, arguing the files are public under the common law, the Clerks of Courts Act (705 ILCS 105/16(6) (West 2002)), and the first amendment. The sealed case files involve the issue of whether certain minor and unborn children of the Pritzker family should be joined to a private, confidential settlement agreement already negotiated and signed by adult family members (the Family Agreement). The trial court allowed the parties to file their complaints under seal and later entered an agreed protective order that maintained confidentiality of all documents filed with the court and required the parties to file all documents under seal. Subsequently, the Tribune was allowed to intervene for the limited purpose of challenging the sealing of the court files, but its motions to unseal were denied, precipitating this appeal.
 The order denying the Tribune's motions to unseal was in the nature of injunctive relief, and, therefore, this court possesses the necessary jurisdiction to entertain the Tribune's interlocutory appeal. 188 Ill. 2d R. 307(a)(1); Skolnick v. Altheimer & Gray, 191 Ill. 2d 214, 221-22 (2000).
In this consolidated appeal, we reverse the trial court's orders sealing the court files, return the circuit court record to the trial court in its sealed condition, and remand the cause for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
In 2001, members of the Pritzker family entered the Family Agreement, which was designed to avoid litigation with respect to certain grievances and settle certain of the family's personal and financial affairs. The Family Agreement was not the product of litigation or any other public process.
In September 2002, petitioners M.E.E., T.J.P., and A.R.W., trustees of multiple Pritzker family trusts, filed a verified petition for declaratory relief, seeking, in accordance with section 19-8 of the Probate Act of 1975 (Probate Act) (755 ILCS 5/19-8 (West 2002)), the entry of an order declaring that the Family Agreement was in the best interests of respondents, minor and unborn beneficiaries. The Family Agreement was not attached to the petition but would be provided to the court for in camera review and to any guardians ad litem appointed by the court after the entry of a protective order.
Petitioners simultaneously filed an emergency motion for leave to file the petition under seal, contending it contained private, detailed information regarding the family trusts and business units, including specific plans and strategies for certain business units. Further, the petitioners contended that public disclosure of the terms of the petition would have an adverse effect on the family members and businesses, that public disclosure at this time might expose the parties' interests to significant harm, and that by sealing the record, confidential family business information would be protected from disclosure to the public at large. The trial court granted petitioners' motion, ordering that the petition and "all further pleadings in this matter shall be filed under seal pending further order" of the court. The trial court also granted the motion for appointment of guardians ad litem for the minor and unborn beneficiaries.
In November 2002, the trial court granted the parties' agreed protective order to, inter alia, (1): maintain confidentiality of all documents produced by petitioners to respondents, all briefs, memoranda or any writings filed with the court and any exhibits thereto, and all discovery materials and deposition transcripts; and (2) file under seal "all documents, discovery responses and deposition transcripts filed with the Court and any pleading or other paper."
In January 2003, the trial court granted the motion of the guardians ad litem to file their joint response to the petition and ordered that "[a]ll pleadings and documents shall be filed under seal until further order of the Court."
In June 2003, the court granted petitioners' motion to file an amended verified petition for declaratory relief, which sought to clarify issues raised in the original petition. According to the amended petition, the Family Agreement not only resolved disputes about the past administration of the trusts, but also established a new administrative structure, which was intended to minimize the possibility that disputes would arise again in the future and to avoid the risks and costs of public litigation. The trustees and adult beneficiaries determined that the resolution effected by the Family Agreement was in the best interests of all trust beneficiaries, but noted that such determination might not be conclusive if the minor and unborn beneficiaries could, years hence, raise their own claims against the trustees. Although the minor and unborn beneficiaries lacked the legal capacity to join the Family Agreement on their own, they could be joined by court decree, which was what petitioners sought in the present suit. According to the amended petition, copies of the Family Agreement were provided to the court under seal and delivered to the guardians ad litem. The Family Agreement was incorporated in the amended petition by reference without being attached thereto; however, a schedule of the Family Agreement was attached to the amended petition as exhibit A.
In June 2003, certain adult beneficiary signatories to the Family Agreement and their adult children moved to intervene in case No. 02 CH 16157. The trial court subsequently granted that motion.
In August 2003, certain adult and minor trust beneficiaries filed a complaint (No. 03 CH 13908) solely to prevent the passage of time from barring their claims against defendants (trustees and others), but with the expectation that those claims would be extinguished by the court's approval of the Family Agreement in related case No. 02 CH 16157. Those plaintiffs filed an emergency motion for leave to file the complaint under seal so as not to undermine the purposes of the court's seal in No. 02 CH 16157. Plaintiffs argued that allowing the complaint to be filed under seal and sealing the record as long as the Family Agreement remained in effect would preserve the privacy and confidentiality of the Family Agreement and proceedings surrounding it, and preserve and protect both familial relationships and the interests of various family businesses. The trial court granted plaintiffs' motion to seal and ordered that the complaint and all further pleadings be filed under seal pending further order of the court. In February 2004, the court entered an agreed order voluntarily dismissing case No. 03 CH 13908 without prejudice.
In February 2004, the Tribune filed petitions to intervene in both cases and motions to unseal the court files. The trial court granted the Tribune leave to intervene as a matter of right for the limited purpose of petitioning the court to unseal the court files. The trial court orally required the Tribune to file its briefs under seal and denied the Tribune's oral request for a copy of either the papers supporting the motion to seal the files or the orders sealing the entire files. The Tribune filed a motion for leave to file its briefs publicly and for copies of the briefs and court orders concerning sealing the files. The trial court orally denied that motion on March 9, 2004. After briefing and oral argument, the court issued on March 19, 2004, a memorandum opinion and order denying the Tribune's motion to unseal the court files. The Tribune appealed both the March 9 and March 19, 2004 orders.
Appellees contend the Tribune failed to timely appeal the trial court's March 9, 2004 oral order within 30 days where the Tribune filed its notice of interlocutory appeal April 14, 2004. Appellees argue the Tribune should not "bootstrap" the appeal of its motion to file public papers and for copies of the briefs and court orders concerning sealing of the files onto the "unrelated" motion to unseal the court files. We disagree. The March 9 oral ruling was directly related to the trial court's March 19, 2004 written order keeping the trial court files sealed. If the trial court unsealed the files on March 19, the March 9 ruling would have been overturned and the briefs and orders relating to the earlier sealing would have been made public. The March 9 oral ruling became final and appealable when the related March 19 order was entered denying the Tribune's motion to unseal the files. Thus, the Tribune timely appealed the trial court's March 9 and March 19, 2004 orders.
Moreover, as discussed below, we find that the trial court abused it discretion by requiring the Tribune to file its briefs, which challenged the seal, under seal; by sealing the court's original orders sealing the files; and by sealing the ...