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.
"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.
That paperwork shows that Kelly was ordered in 2009 to pay more than $20,000 a month in child support. As of February, he owed nearly $200,000, including interest and unpaid educational and health expenses, the filing said. The couple had three children before splitting up.
When he missed the March 6 deadline to come up with $161,663 in overdue payments, Kelly was handcuffed and taken into custody -- an event that reporters could only peer at through the courtroom's glass doors.
The 52-year-old singer spent three nights in Cook County Jail before an anonymous donor posted the money.
Kelly's divorce case dates to 2006, but even the judge's order sealing the case is not available for public view. That means there's no way to know what reason the judge gave, if any, for taking such a drastic action. Or to even know the identity of the judge.
No record of the case even comes up if anyone checks in the circuit court clerk's online database.
Vogus noted that judges can safeguard truly sensitive information by sealing those portions of a case without closing off the entire file to the public. And any sealing order should be made public to explain the judge's rationale, she said.
"When the whole case is under seal, including the motions to seal and the court's order ... that's very troubling," Vogus said.
Eric France, a manager for Kelly's ex-wife, Andrea, who is a dancer and choreographer, said the court fight over child support has been shrouded in secrecy because years ago R. Kelly sought to have the divorce case sealed from public view.
"There's no reason why he shouldn't be subject to public scrutiny just like anyone else," France told the Tribune. "It's of no benefit to (Andrea Kelly) not letting people know what's going on. She feels that he ought to be treated like any other mother or father going through that situation. He's not above the law."
France declined to make Andrea Kelly available for an interview, citing recent instructions from a judge to limit public comment on the proceedings. And her attorney declined to comment.
However, Kelly and his ex-wife have both recently spoken out about the dispute over child support
Andrea Kelly has alleged the singer abused her emotionally and physically during their marriage. Some of her most recent allegations came in the Lifetime documentary series, "Surviving R. Kelly," which aired in January before the most recent court proceedings.
"I'm in foreclosure court on my house. Why? Robert stopped paying child support as a way to punish me," she said in the documentary. "So people think that I'm living this great lavish life, but they don't understand."
And in an interview that aired last week on "CBS This Morning," Kelly blamed his ex-wife's public accusations for making it impossible for him to perform or make money.
"How can I pay child support? How? If my ex-wife is destroying my name and I can't work? How can I work? How can I get paid? How can I take care of my kids? How?" he told Gayle King.
During Wednesday's closed-door hearing, R. Kelly's publicist, Darryll Johnson, told reporters in the hallway that Kelly is seeking to have his child support payments reduced.
"He can't work," Johnson said. "All these accusations and lies, he can't work."
With both Kelly and his ex-wife speaking out publicly, Vogus said, it makes no sense to keep the court fight under wraps.
"The cat's out of the bag, the genie's out of the bottle," she said.
(Chicago Tribune's Rosemary Sobol contributed.)
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