The Utah Supreme Court has upheld an order granting the news media access to depositions from a lawsuit against Utah Power & Light filed by the surviving spouses and children of victims of the Wilberg Mine fire.
The majority of the court agreed with 4th District Federal Court Judge Cullen Christensen that "sealed, pretrial depositions filed with a court are presumptively public" under the Utah Public and Private Writings Act.Almost 200 depositions were taken in the February 1987 case. In April 1987, the media filed a motion to intervene in the case, seeking access to portions of the record.
What the media wanted were the settlement agreements and portions of the depositions relating to UP&L's possible responsibility for the fire and the deaths of 26 miners.
The media's motion to unseal the records was divided and the judge who was assigned the portion of the motion relating to the settlement documents denied that part of the motion. That ruling has not been appealed.
The depositions had been filed with the Utah County clerk and had not been used in court. According to the Supreme Court opinion, they were withheld based on the clerk's understanding of the law.
Christensen ordered the depositions made public after determining that they were judicial writings and under the Public and Private Writings Act, every citizen had a right to inspect them.
UP&L did not appeal the court's finding that a protective order was not justified. But the utility challenged the finding that "filed, sealed deposition transcripts are `judicial records' under the Act."
Associate Chief Justice Richard Howe and Justice Christine Durham concurred with the majority opinion written by Justice Michael Zimmerman. Chief Justice Gordon Hall and Justice I. Daniel Stewart both filed dissenting opinions.
Hall's opinion stated that depositions that have not been entered into the court record, or published, "simply are not `judicial records' " under the law.
Stewart's opinion stated that he dissented "because I believe that the majority opinion departs from basic legal principles and allows destruction of important privacy interests of litigants and witnesses who are subjected to pretrial discovery measures."