Incoming Governor General Julie Payette drops attempt to seal U.S. court records
Former astronaut, and Governor General designate Julie Payette looks on as she is introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the next Governor General of Canada, on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday July 13, 2017. (Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Monday, August 21, 2017 6:45PM EDT
Governor General designate Julie Payette is abandoning her legal bid to block access to U.S. court records related to her 2013 divorce proceedings.
Payette last month filed a motion to seal the records in a Maryland court -- on the same day Canadian media first reported that an assault charge had been laid against her in 2011 and was later withdrawn.
A group of six media organizations, including CTV News, successfully challenged the sealing order in court but Payette launched an appeal, which wouldn’t have been decided until after she is sworn-in as Governor General on October 2.
Payette today issued a statement to the media group saying “for reasons of transparency and to leave no doubt, I have decided to voluntarily drop this appeal and release the divorce files.”
- Scroll down or click here for Julie Payette’s full statement
Although the media group said in court its members have no interest in any issues involving her child, Payette said she originally had the documents sealed to protect him and preserve her privacy.
“Divorces are about fractured relationships and often, a sad parting of ways. This is particularly difficult when children are involved, thus the importance of protecting the ones we love and care about.”
Her decision brings to an end the unusual legal action pitting the Queen’s next representative in Canada against Canadian news organizations, litigated in U.S. court over the limits of First Amendment protections offered journalists by the U.S. constitution.
Payette had been arrested in November 2011 at the Piney Point, Maryland, home she shared with her then-husband, fighter test pilot William “Billie” Flynn. She was charged with second-degree assault. The charges were withdrawn about two weeks later and the records of the charge were eventually expunged.
Payette claimed the assault charge was “unfounded” but neither she nor the Prime Minister’s Office would provide more detail about the incident.
Media organizations turned to her 2013 divorce proceedings against Flynn for more information but found that Payette had brought a motion to seal those records on July 18, 2017.
By default, divorce pleadings in Maryland are public documents, unless one of the parties can prove there is a “special and compelling reason” to restrict access.
Judge David Densford last month agreed with the media group and ruled that the former astronaut did not have sufficient grounds to keep the entire file confidential. He did, however, order that a small amount of information concerning her child be exempted from release.
Payette, 53, then filed an appeal of Densford’s decision in Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals.
In court documents, Payette argued that her right as a parent and the need to protect her family’s privacy were special and compelling reasons to seal.
She also claimed that, because she had also initiated divorce proceedings against Flynn in Quebec, where divorces are confidential, the same rules should apply to the case in Maryland.
Payette accused the media group of attempting to do “an end run” around Canadian law to get information about the expunged assault charge through the divorce.
She noted that media showed no interest in the divorce until she was named Governor General designate.
“Why, what could a private and perhaps difficult divorce have to do with the job requirement for Governor General of Canada?” her lawyer argued in court documents.
The media group, which includes the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Postmedia and iPolitics, argued that “the press and the public have a constitutional right to observe court proceedings and to access judicial records and documents.”
While Payette’s new role will be mostly ceremonial, the media group noted that she may be called on to make crucial decisions involving the governing of the country.
“Ms. Payette will serve as the commander-in-chief of Canada’s military, and will have various other powers, including the power to select or dismiss the country’s Prime Minister, to dissolve the Parliament,” the media group argued in court.
During a five-hour hearing on the sealing order in July, Payette’s counsel told the court that she wanted to give testimony by phone, but only under the condition that testimony remain confidential. The lawyer representing the media group did not agree to that condition and the judge refused to close his court. Payette elected to not testify.
Payette will succeed current Governor General David Johnston.
Statement from Julie Payette
August 21, 2017
In the past, I have been blessed with opportunities few dream of. I have had the good fortune to work on exceptional science projects, to fly in international spaceships and to see our magnificent blue planet from orbit.
But of all the blessings I am grateful for, the most important blessing in my life is my son.
Given recent media interest regarding my private life, I wish to share the following thoughts.
While I understand and appreciate the role of media in reporting on past events in the lives of Canadians in the public eye, as a mother, I need to be mindful of the impact on my family.
Very few families are immune from difficult moments in life -- mine included.
Divorces are about fractured relationships and often, a sad parting of ways. This is particularly difficult when children are involved, thus the importance of protecting the ones we love and care about.
Like many parents in the same situation, I have worked hard to put these difficult events behind me and move on with the best interest of my son in mind.
Not wishing my family to revisit the difficult moments we have been through, it was my hope that our privacy would be preserved. That is why I initially sought to keep our divorce proceedings under seal in the US, consistent with the legal principles in the province of Quebec and in Canada that govern matrimonial and family matters.
Though a Maryland court was currently considering an appeal to maintain our family’s privacy, for reasons of transparency and to leave no doubt, I have decided to voluntarily drop this appeal and release the divorce files. I trust Canadians and media will distinguish between matters of public interest and private life.
As I move forward, it is my son I think of first. His relationship with both his parents is paramount and this is what I will continue to safeguard.
I am deeply honoured to have been given the privilege of serving my country again and I look forward to contributing with all my energy and dedication to the advancement of a knowledge-based society that is open, tolerant, pragmatic and generous.