Last week, Paulding County Superior Court Judge James Osborne a former partner in Richardson’s law firm signed an order preventing public inspection of documents in the case, including a "final order granting divorce." His order sealing the documents and the rapid nature of the proceedings, reported Monday in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, stirred controversy and led to ethics complaints against both Osborne and Richardson.
On Wednesday, Osborne told The Associated Press he had not granted a divorce to the speaker and his wife, Susan Richardson. But Osborne would not discuss the contents of the file he sealed after a private hearing with the Richardsons.Osborne declined to speak to the Journal-Constitution last week. In an interview Wednesday, apparently before he talked to the AP, Osborne told the newspaper that judicial ethics rules prohibit him from making any public comment on the case. He did not respond to messages from the newspaper later Wednesday.
Hank Klibanoff, a managing editor with the AJC, said: "When we raised questions about the divorce before publication, the judge and the speaker refused to respond, and the Paulding County clerk’s office refused to show our reporter the docket listing everything that had been filed." Klibanoff said the uncertainty over the status of the case "strikes us as a clear example of what happens when public officials resort to secrecy. "
By sealing the case, Osborne allowed Richardson to keep private all details of his divorce, including any that might reflect on his performance as a public official. As with other lawsuits, documents concerning divorces typically are public record, and judicial rules restrict the circumstances under which they may be closed.
Osborne took charge of the case even though it was assigned to another judge, Tonny Beavers. Rules governing Georgia’s Superior Courts say the judge to whom any case is assigned shall have "exclusive control" of the matter. Beavers said Osborne told him he had received documents related to the case before they were officially filed. In his interview with the AP, Osborne apparently did not explain why he acted in a case to which he was not assigned.
Among the documents listed in Osborne’s order to seal the case were Susan Richardson’s complaint for divorce, child support and financial documents, and the final divorce order.
All documents in the case were filed simultaneously in the court clerk’s office late the afternoon of Feb. 6.
Osborne said in the order he sealed the documents to avoid potential harm to the Richardsons and their three children.
Osborne was appointed to the Superior Court in 2005 by Gov. Sonny Perdue. He had been the district attorney of the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit and, from 1978 to 1994, was a partner in Richardson’s law firm, then known as Vinson, Osborne, Richardson and Cable.
Osborne’s daughter, Elizabeth Osborne Williams, is a lawyer with Richardson’s firm, now known as Talley, Richardson & Cable.
In his interview with the AP, Osborne reportedly described Richardson as "a super-nice guy," but noted he had not been a member of the speaker’s law firm since 1994.
The judge’s connections to Richardson formed the basis for complaints filed against both men Wednesday by an ethics activist. George Anderson of Rome submitted a complaint against Osborne with the Judicial Qualifications Commission and a complaint against the speaker with the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee.
Georgia Democrats filed an ethics complaint last year against Richardson, a Republican, alleging he had an "inappropriate relationship" with a lobbyist while co-sponsoring legislation that would benefit her employer. A legislative panel dismissed the complaint.
According to court documents, it appeared that the divorce had been granted in a single day. State law requires a 30-day waiting period before uncontested divorces become final. Otherwise, a judge must find evidence of circumstances such as cruel treatment of one spouse by the other, incurable mental illness or adultery.
The speaker’s aides have refused to comment on the case. Nor have they contested Monday’s story.
In a brief interview with the Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, Susan Richardson did not address the status of the divorce. She declined to speak about the case in detail.
"He’s a public figure," she said of the speaker. "You can ask him anything you want. But I would like to be left out of it."