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Judge rules for unsealing State Farm documents

JACKSON — A federal judge has ruled that Mississippi media outlets and a political web site can file motions to unseal documents related to a settlement between the Attorney General’s Office and insurer State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. that was part of their feud over homeowner claims from Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. District Judge David Bramlette ruled March 24 that the media outlets — Jackson New Media Inc. and its web site Y’allPolitics.com and television stations WLBT in Jackson, WDAM in Hattiesburg and WLOX in Biloxi — have 30 days to file motions to have the settlement agreement unsealed.

Hood had asked Bramlette to deny the request. The agreement has been kept under wraps by court order since it was reached in Feb. 2008, and at one point Hood’s office denied to reporters that it even existed.

Bramlette said in his order that the media outlets were seeking to challenge the confidentiality of the settlement agreement, not merits of the lawsuit.

The settlement was reached after State Farm sued Hood, accusing him of using the threat of criminal prosecution to force through settlements in civil lawsuits over Katrina claims. Hood denied the allegation.

Hood claimed the federal court had no authority to open records on a closed case and that the reasons the “testimony and settlement agreement were sealed are equally applicable now.”

State Farm also asked the court to keep the records under seal.

“This is just another example of the media’s vital role to provide the public critical information on important state government workings,” WLBT news director Dennis Smith said in a statement.

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