Jackson New Media, Inc., the publisher of the Mississippi online political website Y'all Politics (YallPolitics.com), filed a motion last week to unseal the 2007 federal court case of State Farm Insurance vs Attorney General Jim Hood. Raycom Media, the owner of three Mississippi televisions stations - WLBT in Jackson, WLOX of Biloxi, and WDAM of Hattiesburg - joined in with supporting motions to intervene before U.S. District Court Judge David Bramlette.

In the case, State Farm sued General Hood for failing to abide by previous agreements and questioned him under oath in a Natchez courtroom. That testimony is not sealed, but the settlement and other materials currently are not accessible by the public or the media.

Hood's testimony in the suit provides and interesting read. At one point, there is some confusion in his answering of questions and he testifies, "I've tried 100 jury trials, but I've never been a witness" and noted that in the confusion he had even raised his left hand instead of his right hand when being sworn in. Judge Bramlette responded, "I know you know your left hand from your right one."

As this column has previously written, Hood's testimony also discusses a dinner he had with Timothy Balducci and Steve Patterson. Balducci has since testified before a federal grand jury in Oxford that Dickie Scruggs promised a payment of $500,000 to him and Patterson if they could convince Hood to drop his criminal investigation of State Farm so the insurer would agree to a civil settlement worth $20 million in attorney fees. Hood denies they attempted to coerce or influence him. Hood has not been implicated in that Oxford-based investigation.

Throughout his testimony, Hood referenced Assistant Attorney General Courtney Schloemer, saying she, as the lead attorney on this matter, could better answer the questions. Hours after Hood's testimony but before State Farm could call Schloemer as a witness, the two sides reached a settlement.

But was it a settlement? On Feb. 19, 2008, Hood spokesperson Jan Schaefer sent out an e-mail to the press saying, "Just wanted to note that General Hood has been on record (more than once) as saying the ONLY thing under seal in the federal case, State Farm v. Hood, is matters related to the state's criminal investigation of State Farm. The federal judge ordered that information to be protected. There is no 'settlement'. The only reason it is referred to as such is because the details of the Attorney General's criminal investigation needed to be protected. The case was dismissed because the allegations were false."

That seems to stand in stark contrast to what Judge Bramlette said in the Court, "the parties announced to the court that they had reached an agreement, a settlement agreement....There is a settlement agreement which will remain under seal which will be filed; but, as I said, it will be under seal."

It also seems to contrast what State Farm thought of the matter. In a response to Schaefer's e-mail, one of the lawyers representing State Farm, Sheila L. Birnbaum, replied, "This is so over the top. Can we ask that he [Hood] be held in contempt of court for misrepresenting a settlement agreement and order of the court." Rather than forwarding that response, Birnbaum inadvertently replied-all sending those thoughts to the reporters on the e-mail, as well as to Schaefer who curtly replied, "No you can't."

Madison attorney Andy Taggart is representing Jackson New Media and Raycom Media in their petition to unseal the settlement agreement. Taggart says, "Hundreds of thousands of Mississippians were adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina. This was a watershed piece of litigation that tens of thousands of homeowners and all Mississippi taxpayers have a stake in. All we ask from the Court is to allow the press and the public their First Amendment right to access to relevant court materials and remove the lingering doubts as to what really happened in this matter."

The motion to unseal the settlement was made to protect the free press rights and the public interest under the U.S. and Mississippi constitutions, as well as the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983. The motion asks for "access to the settlement agreement and any related documents or materials now maintained under seal by the Court" on this matter.

State Farm sued Hood not because of his personal activity, but based on actions they allege he committed as our Attorney General. They reached a settlement.

Hood claims the settlement vindicates him and the "allegations lodged against me by this insurer were shown to be false."

Other than dispute over the characterization of the settlement mentioned above, State Farm has been largely quiet.

But if Hood is correct, then he should be pleased that Y'all Politics has petitioned for this settlement to be opened. We should all be glad that new media and old media have teamed up to protect our access to open government and our freedom of the press.

Brian Perry, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.