Washington Courts Cause Uproar Over Sealing of Court Records

Privacy vs. Transparency

The Washington Courts have sparked a flurry of comments in response to their proposed revisions to General Rule 15 which governs sealing of court records. The court hasn’t merely proposed revisions to GR 15, they have proposed a massive overhaul of the rule.

While many courts strongly discourage the sealing of court records and are working towards transparency, the Washington State Courts have proposed substantial amendments to their General Rule 15 which would allow for greater secrecy in the courts.

The court is holding a public meeting on June 30th to discuss the proposed amendment. Given the comments posted on the court’s website, this meeting should be quite interesting.

Strongly Opposing Opinions

While the majority of comments submitted are strongly opposed to the revisions there are those who support aspects of it, including the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU supports aspects of the revision that would protect privacy rights for individuals in non-conviction cases.

The Tacoma News Tribune sums up their objections this way: “It’s a brutal reality, but privacy must sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of an honest court system.”

There is sure to be a heated debate on June 30th.

Seattle Times Exposé

You might recall that The Seattle Times was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for their series Your Court, Their Secrets which exposed improper sealing of information vital to the public safety and resulted in the unsealing of court files.

Juveniles

While this author is in favor of transparency in the courts there is one compelling issue that warrants sealing of court records – juveniles.

This issue was raised by the May 20th Washington State Supreme Court Symposium which says: “Given the documented differences in adolescent brains, it is clear that juvenile offenders are less culpable and far more likely to be rehabilitated.” Rehabilitation in juvenile cases is far less likely if their records are available to the public.

Quotes From Public Comments

Here are a handful of quotes pulled from comments made to the court in response to the proposed revisions.

King County Prosecuting Attorney

I respectfully ask that this rule be rejected as drafted and that exceptions – whether sweeping or incremental- to the constitutional protections of an open court system be carefully crafted. After the constitutional questions are resolved a new rule can be proposed…

Evy McElmeel, RN, JD

Public trust is founded in an open and transparent civil justice system. This essential component on the three legged stool of our government would be undermined by any increase in secrecy regarding legal proceedings.

Eric M. Stahl

It is an unwarranted rollback of the constitutional promise of open justice. The amendments would lead to sealing, without justification, of a substantial volume of court records that have long been accessible to the press and public.

There are seven broad concerns with the proposed GR 15 amendments. To summarize: 1. The proposed changes create a new, bifurcated standard for sealing court records. Instead of requiring a “compelling” reason before court records are sealed, the amendment allows sealing on a minimal “good cause” …

Mr. Stahl also points out the section of The Washington State Constitution which clearly states “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly” Article 1, § 10.

Former appellate judge C. Kenneth Grosse

These proposed changes turn the basic tenet underlying GR 15 on its ear and disregard the decade’s long effort at compromise and practical analysis encompassed by the existing rule.

Ben Fellows

I am opposed to weakening of public access to court records or transactions. Transparency is vital for an informed citizenry. Secrecy does not serve the public good.

James Kytle

We are at a crossroads in this country and in this state. The fact that the issue of further secrecy of documents that should be open to the public is being considered is a very bad sign.

The public not only has a right to know they need to know.

Public Meeting

The public meeting will be at 9:30am on Monday, June 30th in the Reception Room of the Supreme Court in Olympia.

Leave a Comment