The findings of a city-funded investigation into hostile workplace allegations against a judge and his staff are public under Washington records law, and should be released to a local newspaper, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The opinion upholding a trial court ruling came days after oral arguments in Morgan v. City of Federal Way, in which municipal Judge Michael Morgan had sought to keep the investigative report under wraps.
According to court papers, the case originated with the city of Federal Way’s decision to hire an outside attorney, Amy Stephson, to look into a court employee’s complaints that Morgan’s office was a hostile work environment. Morgan sued the city after a local newspaper, The News Tribune, filed a request for Stephson’s report. The judge argued that Stephson was a court employee, and so her report should not be subject to the public records law. But even beyond that, Morgan said, regardless of whether the report constituted a court document, it should be protected under the attorney-client privilege.
Attorney William Holt represented The News Tribune: "The city of Federal Way said, ‘No, we asked for this investigation. This is not an attorney client activity and in any case the attorney wasn’t working for the court they were working for us’," he said.
The King County Superior Court agreed that the report was in fact a public record; Morgan appealed that ruling. In hopes of securing the release of the report before the judge faces election primaries in August, The News Tribune intervened and requested that the state Supreme Court take up the case and do so swiftly.
The Supreme Court issued an oral court order Thursday, with a detailed decision to follow.