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Senate candidate Sean Parnell loses bid for a sweeping gag order against his estranged wife

In seeking the gag order, Sean Parnell, one of the leading Republican candidates in a critical Senate race, sought to silence his wife on an issue that has threatened to become a major liability.

Sean Parnell announces his candidacy for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in McCandless, Pa. on May 11.
Sean Parnell announces his candidacy for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in McCandless, Pa. on May 11.Read moreSteve Mellon / AP

A judge has denied Sean Parnell’s request for an expansive gag order against his estranged wife and her attorney, though the judge did seal some parts of the ongoing custody fight that has roiled Parnell’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

Judge James Arner, overseeing the Butler County custody case, refused Parnell’s request for an order that would have barred his wife, Laurie, and her attorney from publicly discussing two temporary protection-from-abuse orders issued against Parnell in 2017 and 2018. In his order, the judge also declined to seal the custody case’s records and to bar Laurie Parnell from discussing the case, as Parnell sought.

But Arner did order both parents, who are seeking a divorce, to refrain from disclosing any information about the mental and physical health and treatment of their three children, as well as any information about psychological evaluations of the Parnells and their children filed as part of the dispute.

The judge also denied requests from The Inquirer and the Tribune-Review of Pittsburgh to intervene in the case. Lawyers for both news outlets argued that the custody hearings should remain open to the public; the Tribune-Review also sought to unseal some of the confidential documents in the case, which might have included the mental health evaluations.

» READ MORE: Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell is seeking a gag order against his wife and her attorney as their dispute spills into the campaign

In seeking the gag order covering the protection-from-abuse orders, Parnell, one of the leading Republican candidates in a critical Senate race, sought to silence his wife on a subject that has threatened to become a major campaign liability, fueled in part by continued attacks from one of his main rivals, Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos.

Bartos has called Parnell “unelectable” because of the PFA orders, while Parnell, a decorated former Army Ranger, has called Bartos a liar and called on him to drop out of the race.

A political group aligned with Bartos has run ads citing the protective orders and is planning to continue its push on the issue, attempting to derail Parnell after he secured a coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Bartos and Parnell are two of the top GOP candidates in a race that could help the party regain control of the Senate, with Pennsylvania’s incumbent Republican senator, Pat Toomey, not seeking reelection.

“My only interest has been to protect and shield my three young children and I will not be commenting further,” Parnell said Thursday in a statement issued through his campaign.

A lawyer for Laurie Parnell said in her own statement: “The powerful and influential are not entitled to special treatment and they should not be permitted to silence others. We are pleased with the Judge’s decision to keep the trial open to the public and to deny Mr. Parnell’s request for a blanket gag order against his Wife and her counsel.”

The request for a gag order was Sean Parnell’s second, after an earlier attempt was denied in July, shortly after his Senate campaign began.

Parnell renewed his push in September, citing an Inquirer story that first reported Bartos’ line of attack, as well as other media reports delving into his acrimonious split with his wife.

» READ MORE: Sean Parnell’s wife sought protective orders against him. Pa. Senate race rival Jeff Bartos says that makes him ‘unelectable.

It remains unclear what conduct led to protective orders against Parnell. Neither he nor his wife has publicly addressed the issue. Each order against him was lifted and expunged. The first ended due to an agreement between the Parnells, and the second was dismissed after a hearing involving both of them. Such temporary orders are initially granted in hearings involving only the accuser, not the accused.

Some Republicans have raised questions about the orders and what they may mean for a candidate in such a critical race. Others have been more critical of Bartos for raising the issue.

In seeking the gag order, Parnell and his lawyer raised concerns that disclosing information about the custody case could harm or embarrass the couple’s three school-age children and subject them to harsh media scrutiny.

Laurie Parnell’s lawyers argued that her husband was trying to hide his own conduct behind concern for their children, who appear prominently in his campaign materials.

The custody trial is scheduled to begin next month.