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Your Courts, Their Secrets
Changes take aim at secrecy in courts
Seattle Times staff reporters
A Washington Supreme Court committee voted unanimously Monday for rule changes that would remove any doubt about how rarely court files should be sealed statewide.
Six of the court's nine justices sit on the committee, so the full court is expected to pass the changes when it meets Thursday. The justices have been considering amending the rules since last year.
The Seattle Times published a story Sunday on how judges and court commissioners in King County Superior Court have improperly sealed hundreds of civil cases. The newspaper found 420 that were sealed in their entirety since 1990.
That means everything — from who's accused of what, to how the case wound up — has been concealed.
The cases include lawsuits alleging that certain drugs and medical devices are unsafe; negligence by particular doctors and dentists; missteps by local and state agencies; and misconduct by publicly traded companies.
The state's highest court says court records should be sealed only in rare circumstances. It has written that the public pays for the courts, elects the judges and is entitled to know what goes on in the courthouse.
In more than nine of every 10 cases The Times reviewed, the Superior Court judges or court commissioners failed to satisfy legal requirements for secrecy established by the state Supreme Court. They didn't explain why secrecy was needed, use the proper legal standard or weigh the public interest in open courts.
New statewide rules on sealing files
The Washington Supreme Court is expected to amend a rule about what judges must do before sealing court records. The new rule would provide:
• A judge must enter written findings that identify "compelling privacy or safety concerns that outweigh the public interest" in open court records.
• The parties' wish for secrecy does not by itself justify sealing records.
• A judge should try to redact a court record — that is, black out the sensitive parts — instead of sealing an entire document or file.
On Monday, The Times filed motions to open six of those lawsuits. The newspaper plans to file many more motions in the days, weeks and months to come.
The six lawsuits include one involving an alleged pedophile priest; another against a child-care company; one against a schoolteacher accused of molesting students; and three where lawyers or law firms were being sued.
Gerry Alexander, the Supreme Court's chief justice, said the number of sealed cases The Times found sounded "like an awful lot."
"The large number did concern me," he said. But Alexander said he was reluctant to say more without knowing the facts in the individual cases.
Last year King County Superior Court's top administrative judges came up with a plan that would have opened many, if not most, of the sealed files with minimal delay. But other judges overturned that plan, voting 21-9 to require The Times to file a formal motion in each case.
Some judges have decided to open files without requiring formal motions.
After Sunday's story, Superior Court Judge Mary Yu asked The Times if she had improperly sealed any cases among the 420. If so, she said, she would move to open them without a formal motion.
But Yu did not seal any of the cases the newspaper identified.
"I've got to tell you, I think it's good this issue has been raised," she said. "It should raise awareness with everyone, with the litigants, the lawyers and certainly with the court. What we do ought to be subject to public scrutiny. It's the public's business."
The Supreme Court's Rules Committee voted Monday to amend General Rule 15, which establishes what steps judges must follow before sealing court records. The current rule, adopted in 1989, said judges must find "compelling circumstances" — a demanding legal standard — but offered little other guidance.
However, the Supreme Court, in ruling on individual cases that have come before it, has made clear what steps judges must follow before sealing any documents.
The proposed changes to General Rule 15 would in effect incorporate those written opinions.
The new rule says judges should seal records only if they identify "compelling privacy or safety concerns that outweigh the public interest" in open court records.
It also makes two other points: the parties' wish for secrecy does not by itself justify sealing records; and a judge should try to redact, or black out, sensitive portions of a document rather than sealing the whole record.
If approved Thursday, the rule would take effect July 1.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company