Thursday, February 5, 2015

Reporter Fights to Air Diary of James Brown’s Wife

Reporter Fights to Air Diary of James Brown’s Wife

James Brown, in 2004. Credit Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
NEWBERRY, S.C. — Sue Summer may seem at first glance an unlikely candidate to be involved in one of South Carolina’s most contentious press freedom cases in recent years.
She writes for a small newspaper in this placid town of 10,000, hosts a local radio “Coffee Hour” and edits a magazine food section. In her spare time, she provides day care for her 4-year-old granddaughter and helps organize community events like the Newberry Ice Cream Churn-Off.
But friends and co-workers warn that those who underestimate Mrs. Summer’s grit and tenacity do so at their peril.
“I have no dollars in this fight, but I do have a dog,” Mrs. Summer, 62, said on Monday after the State Supreme Court agreed to take up the case that has put her in the cross hairs of a powerful judge and the lawyers who have been squabbling over the estate of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, since his death on Christmas Day 2006.
On Friday, advised by her lawyers, Mrs. Summer published the contents of a court-sealed diary written by a woman who last month was recognized as Mr. Brown’s wife. Mrs. Summer did so as part of her continuing coverage of the dispute over the Brown estate, valued at as much as $100 million. She has kept the diary entries posted on her Facebook page despite an order last week from District Court Judge Doyet Early III, who first sealed the document in 2008.
Sue Summer is a reporter at The Newberry Observer in South Carolina who has been covering the dispute over the estate of James Brown. Credit MaryAnn Chastain for The New York Times
Mrs. Summer said that she received a copy of the diary anonymously in the mail last week, that as a journalist she is not bound by the court order, and that the entries shed light on a vital question in the estate dispute: Was Tommie Rae Hynie Brown legally married to James Brown?
In an entry just before Mr. Brown’s death — and after he challenged the legality of their 2001 marriage — Mrs. Brown, a former backup vocalist for the entertainer, seems to suggest she did not think she was married to the singer.
“I want to be married,” she writes in one passage. “I want the respect I deserve.”
But Judge Early ruled last month that the marriage had indeed been legal, effectively making Mrs. Brown’s musings irrelevant to the inheritance issues.
And Mrs. Brown’s attorney, Robert Rosen, argues that the diary is a private record of her thoughts and has no business being inspected by the world.
Last week he sought a judicial order barring publication after Mrs. Summer alerted him that she had a copy of the diary, and he issued a subpoena to her seeking notes and other evidence of who had given it to her. “Anyone who had a copy of the diary in the first place was under an order to return it to the clerk of the court,” he said on Monday. “So I asked for her to cease and desist.”
But Mrs. Summer’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, which quashed the subpoena on Monday and said it would rule on the matter in coming days.
Mrs. Summer, who has a master’s degree in education, said that even though she may not represent one of the larger press organizations in the state, her battle to get to the bottom of what is happening with the Brown estate is an important matter of public policy and press freedom. “I don’t want the Freedom of Information Act to fall through the cracks,” she said.
Mrs. Brown’s marital status has been a lingering question throughout the estate dispute. The couple married in December 2001, but Mr. Brown filed for an annulment in 2004, after learning that Mrs. Brown was already married to another man. Judge Early ruled that Mrs. Brown’s earlier marriage, to an immigrant who needed an American spouse to remain in the country and offered her a cash payment, was void because the man already had wives abroad.
Thus, he ruled, she was free to marry in 2001. A lawyer for some of Mr. Brown’s children said they planned to appeal the ruling declaring her their father’s wife.
As a wife, Mrs. Brown may have greater claim on the estate, which includes copyrights to more than 800 songs and about 100 albums. But she was not a named beneficiary of the will, which left nearly all of Mr. Brown’s assets to a foundation to educate poor children, and she had signed a prenuptial agreement forswearing any interest in the estate.
Mrs. Summer, who has three children, said she became interested in the Brown estate case because of her work as a member of the state’s Foster Care Review Board for the last 20 years. She thought the singer’s decision to fund scholarships laudable, she said, and found it easy to imagine the practical results it would have. But no money has been distributed for that purpose because of the ongoing dispute.
“These are kids whose lives could be changed if they only would let the James Brown estate do what it is meant to do,” she said, speaking of the children she deals with in foster care. “They have names and faces, and if they had more hope about what was possible for them, it might make a huge difference.”
Mrs. Summer had long been seeking the diary under the state’s public records law. Though lower courts had ruled in her favor, their decisions were appealed and are pending. In 2012, she was subpoenaed and ordered to turn over documents relating to how she had become aware of the diary, but that order was eventually withdrawn.
In its forthcoming deliberation, the Supreme Court has agreed to address whether the temporary restraining order Judge Early issued last week, blocking publication of the diary, has validity. Theoretically, at least, he could still cite Mrs. Summer for contempt of court for refusing to remove the diary from her Facebook page.
But Jay Bender, a lawyer for the South Carolina Press Association and Mrs. Summer, said the judge’s order is unconstitutional. “If you can’t enjoin the publication of the Pentagon Papers,” he said, “then how does a diary get to be sacrosanct?”
Patricia Edwards, Ms. Summer’s editor at The Newberry Observer, which publishes three times a week and has a circulation of just over 4,000, described Mrs. Summer as a passionate “journalist’s journalist.”
“She firmly believes that open records should be used to let people know what’s going on inside their government, and this James Brown brouhaha is an excellent example of that,” Ms. Edwards said. “When you think about the money involved in that estate, if she had not done what she did, what would have happened?”
Correction: February 3, 2015
An earlier version of the headline with this article misidentified the person who kept a diary that is involved in a dispute over the estate of James Brown. The diary was kept by Tommie Rae Hynie Brown, the wife of Mr. Brown, not by Mr. Brown.

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