CHICAGO -- Singing superstar R. Kelly walked into Cook County family court last week a free man. He was led out in handcuffs. What happened in between is shrouded in mystery.
Unlike the criminal sex abuse charges he faces, Kelly's routine case in divorce court has been kept almost entirely secret -- with little public evidence that it even exists.
The swarms of reporters who have followed Kelly since his criminal indictment were shut out of the hearing on March 6 when Judge Lori Rosen ordered him jailed for failing to pay child support. They were met with closed doors again Wednesday at a follow-up hearing.
And nearly every piece of paper in the case has been filed under seal -- for unknown reasons.
The secrecy goes against a long tradition of openness in U.S. courts. But a Tribune investigation in 2013 found that judges in Cook County's Domestic Relations Division had sealed at least 89 cases since 2000 for the wealthy, well-known and legally savvy. The investigation also uncovered that judges had hidden hundreds of cases involving the rich and influential in the Chancery and Law divisions as well.
That kind of secrecy can undermine the public's trust that the system is fair, particularly in high-profile cases, said Caitlin Vogus, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
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"If you can't see what's going on, you can't see that proper procedure is being followed, that judges are being fair," she said. "All of that is revealed when the public can kind of monitor and see what's going on in these cases, and that's definitely true in divorce cases as well."
Following Wednesday's closed-door hearing, Kelly's attorney, Steven Greenberg, said the singer's divorce case was originally sealed as part of an agreement and remains closed to the public now that it has landed back in court because of the dispute over child support.
Greenberg declined to answer questions about the proceedings, saying Rosen had barred anyone involved in the case from discussing it publicly.
The only concrete details that have surfaced largely come from paperwork that happened to be added to Kelly's criminal case file. Kelly was charged last month in four bombshell indictments that allege he sexually abused three underage girls and a woman over more than a decade.