Monday, February 11, 2008

Seems Speaker Richardson Arranges Special Treatment

Quick and quiet: Speaker Richardson gets divorced
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/11/08

House Speaker Glenn Richardson and his wife filed for divorce, completed the dissolution of their marriage and got court records of the proceedings sealed — all in a single afternoon last week.

The Richardsons appeared privately on Wednesday before a Paulding County Superior Court judge who was not even assigned to their case. The judge, James Osborne, is a former partner in Richardson's law firm.

Susan Richardson held the Bible when husband Glenn took the oath as Speaker of the state House in January 2007.

The judge to whom the case was assigned, Tommy Beavers, said Friday he does not know why the case ended up in Osborne's court. Beavers said Osborne told him he had received the divorce documents before they were officially filed.

The fast-track divorce defied normal procedures as it sped through the Paulding County Courthouse in Dallas, allowing Richardson to keep most details private, including any that might reflect on his performance as a public official.

The divorce followed more than a year of speculation about the status of Glenn and Susan Richardson's marriage. Georgia Democrats last year filed an ethics complaint against the speaker, a Republican, claiming he had had an "inappropriate relationship" with a lobbyist while cosponsoring legislation that would benefit her employer. A legislative panel dismissed the complaint.

A spokeswoman for Richardson did not respond to requests for comment. Richardson was absent from the General Assembly two full days and part of another last week as he attended the funerals of three friends killed in an airplane crash Feb. 1. One service took place Wednesday, a few hours before Richardson and his wife appeared at the courthouse.

Their marriage ended without delay.

State law requires a 30-day waiting period before uncontested divorces become final. A judge may grant an immediate divorce only after finding circumstances such as cruel treatment of one spouse by the other, incurable mental illness or adultery.

Osborne didn't disclose why he did not wait before entering what appears to be a final order. All documents related to the case were simultaneously filed in the court clerk's office at
4:21 p.m.

Susan Richardson, 42, appeared without an attorney, a court docket shows. Her 48-year-old husband, a lawyer, represented himself.

Osborne conducted a private hearing with the couple in his chambers, according to his order sealing the case file. It is the only document available to the public.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for open government, said both the First Amendment and common law contain "a strong presumption of public access to court records."

The rules that govern Georgia's Superior Courts require judges to conduct a hearing before closing files from civil cases and to specify which documents will be sealed and for how long.

Osborne's order indefinitely restricts access to every document in the file.

In the order, Osborne said potential harm to the Richardsons and their three children "outweighs any public interest" to inspect the documents.

Osborne has been a Superior Court judge since February 2005. A former district attorney for the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit, Osborne was a partner, from 1978 to 1994, in Richardson's law firm, then known as Vinson, Osborne, Richardson and Cable.

Under the Paulding Superior Court's rules, the court clerk's office assigns civil cases, including divorces, to the circuit's three judges by rotation. Beavers was the next judge in line to receive a new case. But Osborne took charge of the Richardsons' divorce before Beavers received the case file.

"I was told it was filed," Beavers said in a brief interview Friday. "I have not seen it."
He added, "I don't recognize an instance" in which another Paulding County case has been resolved in a similar manner.

Through his secretary, Osborne declined to comment.

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