Judge Seals Documents in O'Hare Suit

JUNE 9, 2000

In an unusual move the judge presiding over a lawsuit disputing the multibillion-dollar construction at O'Hare International Airport on Thursday sealed previously public documents. DuPage County Judge Bonnie Wheaton provided little explanation for her order, which she issued the same day a Tribune article disclosed that Chicago officials may have hidden plans for new runways at O'Hare while publicly stating they had no intention to expand runway capacity. (See Memos Suggest Chicago Officials Hid Plans to Expand O'Hare Airport.)

"I think I can short-cut this," Wheaton told attorneys assembled in court Thursday morning. Both sides in the case, in which DuPage County and three northwest suburbs argue that current construction at O'Hare requires state certification, filed requests asking the judge rule in their favor based on evidence already filed in the case. The DuPage attorneys also sought an injunction that would have stopped construction being undertaken at O'Hare.

"File it under seal, and that should solve everything," Wheaton said at the one-minute hearing. "We're not going to try this in the media. You can supply your pleading to the court. I'm the only one who's going to look at it."

In fact, Wheaton is among thousands of people who have looked at or been exposed to the five boxes and several binders of material included in the motion for summary judgment that attorneys for DuPage County filed Thursday. In July those attorneys gave a lengthy presentation to the DuPage County Board using the documents that Wheaton ordered sealed. Attorneys also had presented the material in public meetings held in Bensenville, Elk Grove Village, Elmhurst, and Wood Dale, some of which were taped and broadcast over public access cable TV.

Joseph Karaganis, one of the attorneys representing DuPage County and the northwest suburbs, said none of the documents sealed by Wheaton was covered by a July 1996 court order that kept airlines' internal business matters confidential.

But Joseph Laraia, one of the attorneys representing Chicago, argued that it remains uncertain whether all the materials in Karaganis' motion are public. The 1996 court order set up a plan whereby airlines would stamp material they felt was confidential and Karaganis or other attorneys who disputed that claim were required to come to court to argue that the stamped material should be in the public file.

Karaganis, Laraia, and other attorneys were expecting to argue over the confidentiality of some documents at Thursday's hearing.

Wheaton's decision to seal the motions "seemed logical to me," Laraia said. "Instead of getting involved in nitpicking and getting involved in the nature of each of these thousands of documents, why don't we just get into the issue of this case. This way she can review them all and decide the motions on the issues of law." He called Karaganis' view "kind of a red herring. You can make it look like an outrage, but it really isn't."

Technically, Wheaton's order prohibits attorneys from discussing with their clients -- the elected officials from Chicago and the suburbs and their constituents, who are funding the legal fight -- the specifics of material in the motions. But the attorneys already have talked in great detail about the case with their clients and the issues at the heart of the dispute.

Suburban mayors avoided harsh words for Wheaton, but clearly were upset with her decision. "This is not a fight with Bonnie Wheaton," said Bensenville Village President John Geils. "This is a problem that has existed for years. It's about having access and debating this issue in a public forum. This is just another barrier to getting to that problem." He added that Wheaton's order "reinforces our position that the ultimate decision is going to be a political one made by the governor."

Park Ridge Mayor Ron Wietecha suggested the consultants' documents provided evidence of duplicity by the city and underscored the need for greater accountability and oversight in projecting future passenger numbers. "Most people are trusting," Wietecha said. "They don't believe government bodies would deliberately skew their numbers. But that in fact is what these documents show." Wietecha added that Wheaton's ruling "is serving everyone notice that this is not to be a public relations campaign."

Typically, judges order court documents sealed to protect the safety of people involved in a case, or to preserve confidential business interests or national security, according to Victor Rosenblum, constitutional and administrative law professor at Northwestern University. Wheaton's ruling "is a dicey situation which could conceivably be a violation of the Freedom of Information Act and Public Records Law," Rosenblum said. "But I'm not certain because courts have been given a fair amount of discretion. There's no way of knowing unless you go to the mat on this and it's the kind of thing where I think you should."

The lawsuit, filed in 1995, contends that Chicago needed approval from the Illinois Department of Transportation for all construction undertaken at O'Hare. City officials have maintained that IDOT authorization is required only for runway expansion and construction in flight paths.

Opponents of O'Hare expansion have maintained for years that construction at the airport has been the groundwork for runway expansion. For just as long, city officials have stated that they had no plans to build more runways at O'Hare.

But the documents distilled in the Tribune article indicate that the city was planning to expand runways at the airport while publicly stating the exact opposite. The material outlines a previously undisclosed project, the Integrated Airport Plan, which is similar to the city's $3.7 billion World Gateway Program but also calls for an unspecified number of new runways in about a decade.

On Thursday, Mayor Richard Daley said there is no "secret plan" for additional runways at O'Hare. "Those who oppose [or] hate O'Hare ... are making more rumors," Daley said. "But there are no plans. The only person who can give a runway is not Mayor Daley, not President Clinton, [but] the governor of Illinois."

After accusing the Tribune story of being "flamboyantly skewed and inaccurate," Chicago Commissioner of Aviation Thomas Walker in a statement said the World Gateway Program "is about modernizing O'Hare terminal facilities to make it more efficient and keep it more competitive with other airports across the nation." That modernization "is crucial for the economy of the region and for the convenience of our passengers," Walker stated. "That is why World Gateway has the support of Gov. [George] Ryan and IDOT Secretary Kirk Brown."

Source: Chicago Tribune