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Long IslandInvestigations

Sealed vs. open: The Astor case

Philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor is pictured on

Philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor is pictured on May 1, 1997. Credit: AP

In guardianships, how can judges balance privacy and the public interest?

The most publicized guardianship case in state history, which involved socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor and her son, Anthony D. Marshall, serves as an instructive example.

Astor, afflicted by Alzheimer’s, was the focus of a bitter fight when her grandson charged that his father, Astor’s son, was bilking the centenarian and turning a blind eye to her living conditions and deteriorating health. Marshall disputed the claim.

Several press organizations sought access to Astor’s sealed guardianship file, and in 2006 Manhattan Judge John E.H. Stackhouse opened the case to the public, save for specific documents such as Astor’s medical records.

In doing so, he stressed the benefits of openness to the justice system, that confidentiality is supposed to be the exception under the law, and that he was bound by case law to be selective in what he kept under seal.

“Less restrictive alternatives to full closure,” Stackhouse wrote in his decision, “should be employed whenever possible.”

In a later criminal proceeding, Marshall was convicted in 2009 of having looted his mother’s fortune.

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