No right to know?: Edgar Snyder gets a judge to keep the public out

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If everybody in Pittsburgh knows personal injury lawyer Edgar Snyder, it’s because he made them know him. With his promotional TV ads and billboards, he made himself one of the most recognizable figures in the region. What it took for him to become uncharacteristically shy was a contentious divorce.

In early June, through his attorneys at Bunde, Gillotti, Mulroy & Shultz, Mr. Snyder filed a divorce action under seal against his wife of 32 years, Sandy. With divorce, complications often follow — but Mr. Snyder’s were unusual.

Mr. Snyder also received legal help from Jeffrey P. Ward of Cohen & Grigsby, brother of Common Pleas Court Judge Christine Ward. Unfortunately, that presented at least the appearance of a problem. For in addition to filing the divorce action, Mr. Snyder — using the law firm of Cohen & Grigsby — filed a defamation suit against his wife.

Although Judge Ward was not handling the divorce case, the defamation case came to her and she agreed to seal it. It turns out that the judge’s brother had made a telephone call to her — but about what? Mr. Ward denied that it was about the defamation case, in which he said he had no involvement; he said the call was about the divorce case.

For her part, Judge Ward says she did not know her brother was doing work for Mr. Snyder. “How would I know that? I don’t know what he works on,” she said. “If somebody brings that to my attention, then I would look at it.”

That’s reassuring, because presumably she would have seen what others clearly see — an apparent conflict of interest, even if it was innocent — and recused herself.

But that is secondary to the real problem: What business did Judge Ward have in sealing a defamation suit? She is sitting in that court as a tribune of the people, not as a granter of special favors to wealthy and prominent plaintiffs.

In the motion to seal the case — which has since been dropped — attorney Kevin Harkins wrote that the “need to protect Mr. Snyder’s reputation, on which he has built his career, outweighs the common law right of access to records. Unless this case is sealed, the mere presence of these allegations in the public domain would harm Mr. Snyder’s reputation ... ”

Note that reference to the “common law right.” That’s the right of the people, and it was ignored because a man who courts public attention feared public attention of a different kind. And the judge shamefully went along with it.

Judge Ward and all other Pennsylvania jurists have a duty to keep their courtrooms open to ensure that the public, not only in this case but in all others, can see whether justice is being done.

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