News / Canada

Incoming governor general drops fight to keep divorce records sealed

Julie Payette has dropped her opposition to a group of major media outlets seeking access to recently sealed divorce records in a Maryland court.

Former astronaut, and Governor General designate, Julie Payette looks on as she is introduced by Prime Minister Justine Trudeau as the next Governor General of Canada, on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday July 13, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Former astronaut, and Governor General designate, Julie Payette looks on as she is introduced by Prime Minister Justine Trudeau as the next Governor General of Canada, on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday July 13, 2017.

Canada’s governor general designate, Julie Payette, has dropped her opposition to a group of major media outlets seeking access to recently sealed divorce records in a Maryland court.

The media group, including Torstar News Service and CTV, went to court last month in the hope that the divorce records would shed light on Payette’s 2011 arrest on charges of assault against her then husband, Billie Flynn. The charges were withdrawn and those records, including a police report, were destroyed by court order, according to court officials.

A Maryland judge recently ruled that the divorce records Payette had sealed in July when reporters started asking questions should be public. Payette appealed, pending a mid-November hearing. She takes up her post as governor general in early October.

On Monday afternoon, Payette issued a statement saying that she had decided to drop her appeal, paving the way for the court records to be released in the coming days.

 “Not wishing my family to revisit the difficult moments we have been through, it was my hope that our privacy would be preserved,” Payette wrote. “That is why I initially sought to keep our divorce proceedings under seal.”

Payette, in her statement, said it was out of concern for her son’s privacy that she initially wanted the records sealed.

“In the past I have been blessed with opportunities few dream of,” said Payette, a former astronaut. “But of all the blessings I am grateful for, the most important blessing in my life is my son.”

From the outset, the media group made it clear it was not interested in matters relating to the couple’s child.

“The Star is seeking access to the court documents to determine if there is something in them of public interest in regards to Canada’s next governor general,” said Torstar editor Michael Cooke. “The Star has no interest in publishing private details of a child in this case. That was made very clear by the media’s lawyer in the hearing.”

Payette said Monday that “for reasons of transparency and to leave no doubt,” she said she has agreed to drop her appeal.

Other media outlets involved in the challenge include the Globe and Mail, CBC, iPolitics and the National Post.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in early July that Payette, a former Canadian astronaut, would be Canada’s next governor general, starting in October.

The legal saga that has played out quietly in a Maryland courthouse for the past month began when political website iPolitics uncovered existence of Payette’s expunged assault charge by doing a routine search using an online record check service. Though official documents and transcripts were ordered destroyed by the court at Payette’s request in 2011, an electronic ghost of the charge remained. That sent Torstar to Maryland looking for information that would shed light on the matter.

The St. Mary’s County courthouse in Leonardtown, a small county seat, is an hour’s drive from where Payette and Flynn lived together for several years on the shore of a sprawling river. Chesapeake Bay is nearby. Flynn still lives there occasionally.

Something happened on Nov. 24, 2011, that brought sheriff’s deputies to the house the couple purchased the previous year.

Who called police and why has never been made public. Only Payette was charged. The sheriff’s department and state’s attorney say they are not allowed to discuss the case, since a court expunged the records at the request of Payette two weeks later, on Dec. 8, 2011.

Her lawyer at the time, Dan Slade, told Torstar that the charges had “absolutely no merit” but he would not provide details. The state’s attorney who agreed to the expungement order also would not discuss the matter.

With Payette and Flynn not talking, the media group turned to the Maryland courts to see if divorce files contained any references to the expunged case.

Payette went to court to have the divorce records sealed on an emergency basis on July 18, the day iPolitics broke the story.

The media outlets joined together and hired a U.S. lawyer, arguing that given the importance of the role of governor general, the public should have access to records related to her past activities.

In their challenge, the media group’s lawyer, Seth Berlin of Washington-based firm Levine Sullivan, said that in the United States under the First Amendment, and in Maryland under the Declaration of Rights, the “press and the public have a constitutional right to observe court proceedings and to access judicial records and documents.”

When Payette filed for the sealing order, she stated in an affidavit that she wanted to protect the couple’s son, and herself. She stated that she has “reason to believe that (the media) may be trying to expose facts of this case to people in Canada in an attempt to publicly ridicule me and I believe these actions will cause irrevocable harm to not only myself but my son.”

Judge David Densford of the Circuit Court for St. Mary’s County agreed with the media group, ruling that in Maryland court files are “presumed to be open to the public for inspection.” He ordered the files opened, pending appeal, except for specific sections that dealt with the couple’s son.

A spokesperson for the Governor General’s Office told Torstar that Payette was personally paying for the legal challenge.

Payette’s former husband, Flynn, is a test pilot for Lockheed Martin and the F-35 jet. Previously, as a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he flew 25 combat missions over Kosovo and the former Republic of Yugoslavia. At the time of the 2011 incident, Payette had left the astronaut program and was in Washington at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The couple both travelled extensively. When they purchased the Maryland house in 2010, Flynn was out of town and he gave his power of attorney to Payette to effect the purchase, paying $616,000 (U.S.) for the remote, 4,000-square-foot house and property, records show.

Torstar earlier reported that a couple of months before the 2011 assault charge, Payette struck and killed a pedestrian while returning home from a trip. Police records show that after an extensive investigation, it was determined to be an accident, something the victim’s sister has told Torstar she agrees with.

Flynn and Payette’s marriage broke down over the next year and Flynn filed for separation in 2013. Payette followed up by filing for divorce and the case wound its way through court over the next two years. During this time, the case was public, including all testimony and documents. Ultimately, it was resolved, just before Payette was appointed governor general.

Full text of Julie Payette’s statement to the media group:

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.

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