Today, US District Court Judge David Bramlette issued a ruling on a series of motions in State Farm vs. Hood (MSSD 2:07-cv-188). In April 2009, a group of media companies including Jackson New Media, Inc., (YallPolitics), WLBT, WDAM and WLOX all jointly filed to gain status as a recognized intervenor in the case. The purpose of seeking this status was to have the Court unseal several court records including the settlement agreement, which was hastily crafted on the same day that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood testified under oath in the case in February 2008.

As background, on February 18, 2008, Attorney General Hood wrote an op-ed column in the Clarion Ledger and stated, “allegations lodged against me by this insurer (State Farm) were shown to be false when a federal judge recently threw out a lawsuit it had filed against my office.” Jan Schaffer, Press Secretary for the Attorney General Hood, stated in an email to the press on February 19, 2008, “There is no ‘settlement’. The only reason it is referred to as such is because the details of the Attorney General’s criminal investigation needed to be protected. The case was dismissed because the allegations were false.” In an email response that was accidentally leaked to the press, State Farm Attorney Sheila Birnbaum stated “This is so over the top. Can we ask that he (General Hood) be held in contempt of court for misrepresenting a settlement agreement and order of the court?”

Judge Bramlette, after systematically dismantling the objections made by Attorney General Jim Hood’s office, granted the media the status to now make appropriate motions. Appropriately (and perhaps poetically), this motion was granted during Mississippi media’s celebration of Sunshine Week, which focuses on providing open and transparent government dealings and public record access. While the order didn’t grant the unsealing of records (because the movants did not have status in the case until this order), this order does clear the way for these media outlets to ask the court officially for the information.

From the order . . .

The Court therefore finds that the movants’ motion is well taken and they shall be allowed to intervene for the limited purpose of challenging the order sealing certain court documents.

Accordingly, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion to intervene of Jackson New Media, Inc., joined in by WDAM, LLC; WLBT, LLC; and WLOX, LLC is GRANTED; FURTHER ORDERED that the movants shall have thirty (30) days to file an appropriate motion and memorandum.

YallPolitics, WLBT, WDAM and WLOX have 30 days to make motions to the Court for the information that it seeks to have unsealed. The two main questions that will be answered are (1) will the MS Attorney General’s Office or other parties come out opposed to open government and media access to vital public records and (2) will the public finally get the sealed materials made available in this case?

Stay tuned.