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Monday, June 5, 2006 - Page updated at 10:55 AM

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Your Courts, Their Secrets

About this project: Ferreting out who, what and why

For this project, we needed to do three things:

Find the sealed files. Figure out who's suing whom. Find out who sealed the file, and why.

Finding the files

The clerk's office at King County Superior Court doesn't keep a list of sealed court cases. So we searched for indicators.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts helped. It ran computer searches of electronic court dockets, looking for docket codes or words (for example, "seal" or "confidential") that suggested a case had been sealed in whole or part. These runs kicked up thousands of cases going back to 1990. (We were looking only for civil lawsuits, such as medical-malpractice cases. The searches did not cover divorce or criminal cases.)

We then checked the cases at the courthouse. You type a case number into the computer, and if the case is sealed, a message pops up, denying access.

We also checked older files that had been shelved instead of scanned into the computer. We walked down rows of files at the clerk's office, looking for yellow folder-sized markers that indicate a case is sealed and locked away in a separate room.

We discovered nearly 300 cases the clerk's office had sealed by mistake. In most, only part of the file was supposed to be sealed. Alerted to these errors, the clerk's office opened up those files.

We found more than 1,000 cases sealed in part. In some, such crucial records as the complaint or rulings summarizing the evidence were sealed.

In the end, we found 420 civil cases that have been sealed in their entirety since 1990. But there could be more.

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Who's suing whom

If a case is sealed, the clerk's office gives you the names of the parties and the case type — for example, "wrongful death." But even these scraps can be a riddle. Take case No. 94-2-13372-1. The plaintiffs are John and Jane Doe. The defendants are John and Jane Roe. The case type is "minor settlement." There's no telling what happened here.

But most times, the parties are identified by name. So we tried to figure out who they were.

We ran their names through dozens of searchable databases, including ones for lawyers, health-care professionals, government employees and state-licensed occupations, and through court records and news archives.

Who sealed it and why

The Washington Supreme Court says sealing orders are supposed to be available to the public, unless they fall into a narrow statutory exemption. Otherwise, how could you know why secrecy was granted in a particular case?

The clerk's office helped us gather the sealing orders in 383 of the 420 cases. In the other cases, the order was missing from the file, the whole file was missing, or the court said the order was itself sealed.

The orders told us which judge or court commissioner sealed a file. They were also supposed to say why — but only half provided any explanation.

— Ken Armstrong and Justin Mayo, staff reporters

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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