Arguing that it was none of the public's concern, attorney Brent Coon - one of Texas' most colorful attorneys - had a local judge seal an arbitration award stemming from a lawsuit over asbestos attorney's fees.

However, not everyone thinks the award should have been sealed. At least one First Amendment activist believes sealing court records is a "threat to the public."

Over the past two years, the Southeast Texas Record has reported on the struggle between Coon and his former employer, the Provost Umphrey law firm.

In a battle encompassing several courts, the parties have been warring over millions in attorney's fees from the state's mega-billion dollar tobacco settlement as well as fees flowing from asbestos litigation.

On Monday, Feb. 8, Jefferson County Judge Milton Shuffield, 136th Judicial District, permanently sealed a final judgment award issued Dec. 30 by the American Arbitration Association.

Judge Shuffield was not presiding over the tobacco fee dispute, but rather had been litigating a dispute between Umphrey and Coon over attorney's fees in unrelated asbestos litigation.

"There has been a growing trend in America of judges sealing court records � it's becoming a real threat to the public," said David Hudson Jr., spokesperson for the First Amendment Center. "It's not a good development at all."

During a recent phone interview, Hudson told the Record that his organization wants to see judges abiding by the First Amendment and working to foster an open judicial process.

He pointed out that more and more attorneys and judges are sealing court records without having a valid reason for doing so.

The Provost Umphrey law firm sued Coon and his firm in 2006, alleging Coon was keeping attorney's fees won while in PU's employment.

Two weeks after the arbitration award was handed down, Coon filed a motion to seal.

"The application and the award contain information that is private and of a confidential nature, in which the public has no interest," Coon's motion to seal states.

"The movants' right to privacy is not outweighed by any presumption of openness, probable adverse affect upon (the) general public health or safety, or public interest."

Coon's motion goes on to argue that Judge Shuffield should seal the award because the action would "effectively protect the movants' interest ... and also disclosure will jeopardize any potential resolution between the parties."

In contrast to Coon's motion, Hudson says there has to be an abundant "counter-weight" issue that would adversely affect the public in order to seal an arbitration award.

Provost Umphrey is represented in part by Orgain, Bell & Tucker attorney Gary Reger.

Coon is represented by the Law Office of Keith Kebodeaux.

Case No. A176-633

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