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Estranged heirs of Saints owner Tom Benson try to unseal records

NEW ORLEANS -- Estranged relatives of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson have asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to let the public see at least some of the court record from a civil case alleging Benson is in poor mental health and was manipulated into changing his succession plan for his pro sports teams.

The petition -- filed by Benson's daughter, Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc -- says a lower court's decision to seal the record fails to balance the public's right of access to the courts with Tom Benson's privacy rights. The petition also argues that the lower court's orders violate the first amendment rights of parties to the lawsuit to publicly discuss aspects of the case that concern Louisiana residents whose taxes have in part supported the pro teams.

In January 2015, Tom Benson, who is now 88, announced he was ousting Renee Benson and her children from Saints and Pelicans ownership and giving complete control to his third wife, Gayle Benson, upon his death.

The estranged heirs, through lead attorney Randall A. Smith, argue that lower court rulings sealing the entire record violate both the Louisiana and United States constitutions.

The public's right to access the courts weighs "especially heavily when a public figure, such as [Benson], is involved," the petition states.

Benson is "undoubtedly a public figure," the petition states, adding that Benson's "business empire receives millions of dollars of public expenditures from Louisiana taxpayers, pumps millions of dollars of revenues into Louisiana as a whole and therefore should not be conducted under a cloak of complete secrecy."

During last June's mental competency trial, known in Louisiana as an interdiction proceeding, Orleans Parish Judge Kern Reese barred the public from the court room, ruling specifically that Benson's personal medical information will be "interwoven" throughout the testimony.

Reese, who did not require Tom Benson to testify but interviewed him in chambers, ruled that Benson was mentally competent when he changed his will and cut ties with his daughter and her children.

The estranged heirs, who have argued that Benson should have been compelled to testify under cross examination, have challenged Reese's ruling in the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit judges, who have not yet ruled on the appeal, have maintained the lower court's gag order.

In their petition to the state Supreme Court, filed this week, the estranged heirs argue that because trial is over, it should not be difficult to release portions of the trial to the public while removing testimony and other evidence specifically related to Benson's medical records.

There is "no risk of the public and press hearing live testimony that should have been protected from public disclosure," the petition states. "The record should be opened with appropriate, limited redactions."