ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Jon and Kate Gosselin don’t live in Montgomery County, Pa. So why are the stars of “Jon & Kate Plus 8” getting divorced there?
One likely answer: to take advantage of an unusual local rule that keeps prying eyes away from divorce records. In Montgomery County, a wealthy enclave outside Philadelphia, divorce filings are automatically placed under seal – barring access to the media and the public and allowing fractious couples like the Gosselins to dissolve their broken marriages in private.
The rule was written decades ago, before no-fault divorce became an option and at a time when divorce petitions tended to be more explosive and salacious than they are today, said Richard Hodgson, the county’s president judge.
“I think it was a feeling that those kinds of allegations shouldn’t be available to the public just to trash somebody and put it all over the street,” he said Wednesday.
The Gosselins needn’t have worried about airing their dirtiest laundry in public, at least at this early stage of the divorce. Kate Gosselin’s no-fault petition, filed Monday and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, offers boilerplate language but no detail on why the celebrity couple is splitting after 10 years.
“Jon & Kate,” which drew record ratings when the Gosselins announced their breakup on Monday night’s episode, is going on hiatus until August to allow the couple time to “regroup,” according to TLC.
Attorneys for the couple aren’t commenting on why they wanted to shift the case out of Berks County – where the Gosselins reside with their eight children – to a court in neighbouring Montgomery County. But in Berks, as in most Pennsylvania counties, divorce records are available to anyone who walks in off the street and asks for them.
Open-records advocates say that’s how it should be.
“A divorce is a public act,” said Robert Richards, founding co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University. “They are not going to private mediators and handling it that way. They are going to the public court system to dissolve their marriage.”
He added the policies of Montgomery County and Philadelphia – another jurisdiction that seals divorce records – might be vulnerable to a legal challenge because the Pennsylvania Constitution declares that “all courts shall be open.”
“To close off access to a whole category of files, to me, is going much too far,” he said.
But supporters of the rule say privacy concerns – especially when children are involved – outweigh the public’s right to know.
“Those inside the system think it’s enough that kids are involved in a custody matter in the first place, and to subject them to further publicity serves no legitimate purpose,” said Harry Byrne, a Montgomery County divorce lawyer.
In Los Angeles, perhaps the celebrity divorce capital of the world, divorce petitions are generally public. However, couples can opt to have their case heard by a private arbitrator. Also, divorces litigated in the public court system can be at least partially sealed, as has frequently been the case with the breakups of stars such as Britney Spears and ex-husband Kevin Federline, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, and Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen.
A celebrity couple will occasionally try to divorce quietly and without attracting the attention of the entertainment press, as actress Kate Walsh and her husband Alex Young sought to do last year when they filed their divorce petition using only their initials.
Associated Press writer Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles contributed to this story.