TMZ has been working under the radar for months to obtain public documents in the Michael Jackson/Debbie Rowe custody dispute, yet the judge in the case has played a shell game with us, coming up with excuses, some outlandish, to keep public records private.
Although Judge Stephen Lachs has acknowledged that TMZ has a legal right to attend hearings, he has misled us by withholding hearing dates and repeatedly promising that we would have access to documents that we have still not obtained. Lachs has given TMZ's lawyers excuse after excuse, including that he took the only copy of the papers alleging child abduction first to Palm Desert, then to New York.
On one occasion last December, a TMZ producer was present for a hearing. Under court rules, the judge must allow the media and the public to sit and observe -- with one exception. If the hearing involves information that could prove detrimental to the children, the judge can close the hearing. Jackson's lawyer represented to the court that he would be discussing a sensitive custody matter, and Judge Lachs ordered TMZ's producer to leave. The minute she left, Jackson's lawyer pulled out a motion to recuse (boot) the judge from the case. We were entitled to hear that motion, in which allegations of child abduction were discussed, but we were never invited back in.
In the motion to recuse Lachs, Jackson's lawyers argued the Judge was prejudiced by making comments that Jackson had made anti-Semitic comments and that he had obtained his children's passports through "subterfuge."
Jackson and Rowe used an increasingly common practice to get their case out of the public eye. They agreed to have a retired judge hear the case -- a judge who would be temporarily sworn back into service and hear the case in a private office. Jackson and Rowe hired retired LA Superior Court Judge Stephen Lachs, whose rate is $375 an hour. An increasing number of celebrities, most recently Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, choose this option because their cases go unnoticed. The parties in Jackson's case were shocked when TMZ produced the court rule that allowed us in. But Lachs has been more than a blessing to them by jerking TMZ around.
Susan Seager, TMZ's lawyer, put it this way, "There's a whole secret system of justice for celebrities in Los Angeles." Seager adds, "That's not the way it's supposed to be."