Washington Supreme Court narrows public access to court documents

Rob Tricchinelli | Secret Courts | News | January 15, 2013

Supporting documents can remain hidden when filed in a court case that settles before a decision is reached, according to a ruling last week by the Washington state Supreme Court.

According to the state constitution, “justice in all cases shall be administered openly,” creating a presumption of public access to court documents in most cases. The state’s courts had previously interpreted that part of the constitution to apply only to documents that were “part of the administration of justice.”

In its 5-4 ruling late last week, the court held that any documents “submitted in support of a motion that was never decided” did not become part of the administration of justice, and no public presumption of access applies. “Only material relevant to a decision actually made by the court is presumptively public under” the state constitution, the court said.

Four judges were part of the lead opinion, written by Justice Tom Chambers. Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen wrote a separate opinion, agreeing with the overall result but for different reasons. Four judges dissented, in an opinion by Justice Debra L. Stephens.

The case began as a divorce proceeding, and relevant tax records from other parties were accordingly filed. The trial court allowed those records to be filed under seal but said it would reconsider the privacy of those documents under public access law once the case continued.

Before the court could reconsider those documents and rule on other pending motions, the divorcing parties settled their case. A third party, a potential witness in the case, intervened to unseal the records, asserting he had a right of access to the documents as a member of the public.

The trial court denied his efforts to unseal the records, and that denial was affirmed by another appeals court on its way to the state’s highest court.

The state Supreme Court ruled the same way. In its lead opinion, the court determined that because the case was settled, the sealed documents were not relevant to a decision of the trial court.

“Filing documents, whether relevant or irrelevant, does not alone make the documents part of the court’s decision making process,” the lead opinion said. “In order for documents to become part of the decision making process, there must be a decision.”

With the documents outside that process, the state constitution’s language on open access to justice did not apply. The court wrote that “some conduct by the judge or judiciary is necessary for the public’s constitutional interest in the proceedings to arise.”

The dissenting judges said they believed the lead opinion misapplied state court precedent: “The lead opinion advances the remarkable proposition that court records are no longer public if the case settles before the court rules. This significantly erodes the constitutional guaranty of openness.”

The dissent took issue with how the lead opinion will affect the timing of cases. Documents filed early in a case may become irrelevant later on if the case is settled, but the dissent argued that the public nature of those documents should be decided immediately.

“A case may go through an entire trial only to be settled before verdict,” the dissent said. “But, when a member of the press or public moves to intervene and unseal part of the court file, the court must review the file and make a ruling. It cannot defer ruling on the motion to see if the documents in question will in fact be relevant to a judicial decision.”