After ‘Seattle Times’ Secrecy Series, Number Of Sealed Court Files Goes From 1,378 To Zero

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By: E&P Staff

To kick off Sunshine Week 2006 last March, The Seattle Times published an investigative report showing that an astounding 1,378 cases that came before King County, Washington, judges were sealed in their entirety — nearly all of them improperly.

The Times itself filed motions to unseal 18 of the most egregious examples, including cases involving an alleged pedophile priest, a state employee accused of molesting juveniles at a youth lockup and several medical malpractice suits.

Sunday, the Times reported on the power of the press to shame government into working transparently: Since the series “Your Courts, Their Secrets” was published not a single case has been sealed in King County courts.

“Instead of being hidden away, files are being opened up,” said the article by the reporters who wrote the original series, Ken Armstrong, Justin Mayo and Steve Miletich.

In the past nine months, the courts have also gone back to unseal old cases. King County judges and commissioners unsealed 42 cases because of a court motion or formal request from the newspaper, the Times reported. In neighboring Snohomish County, at least 150 files have been opened, it said. There are similar stories in other Washington state counties, the paper said.

“Even narrow secrecy requests get scrutinized in ways unimaginable a year ago,” the Times reported. “Before, parties routinely made settlement amounts confidential. The courts typically approved, even though a settlement’s terms can provide the public valuable information. Was the amount a nominal figure easily dismissed as a nuisance settlement? Or was it something more?”

The series has literally changed the minds of some attorneys who routinely asked courts to seal cases. Attorney James Degel, for instance, is a professional guardian who, the newspaper reported, has asked the court to open nearly 50 cases previously sealed at his request. The newspaper said he credited the Times articles plus recent court decisions for changing his mind.

In March, the Times reported that at least 420 civil suits were sealed in their entirety since 1990. “Those sealing orders kept the public from knowing about wrongdoing or alleged negligence by local schools, hospitals, lawyers, churches, state agencies, manufacturers and others,” the paper noted.

Another 266 guardianship cases were also sealed in that period — secrecy that kept “conflicts of interest and questionable billing practices by court-appointed guardians from public eyes.”

The most commonly sealed court cases involved divorce. Some 692 cases were hidden entirely, the paper found. “If the file is sealed, how can anyone know if the outcome was fair?” the Times said in its follow-up. “What’s to keep a judge from being unduly swayed by one side’s power or legal muscle?”

While Washington’s constitution declares that “justice in all cases shall be administered openly,” — and rules established in 1980 restricted instances in which court secrecy was permitted — the Times investigation last spring found that 97% of the sealed cases violated those regulations.

Unsealing the cases was expensive for the newspaper. It said the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine moved to open 32 cases, putting in at least 800 hours of work. Lawyers fee to unseal each case averaged $6,000, the Times said.

“Extend that figure to all 420 of the sealed civil suits, and the cost to the Times — the cost of public access– would be a staggering $2.5 million. And that’s for just one type of case, in only one county,” the newspaper wrote.

The Times said it plans to keep writing about sealed cases. “Look for more stories in the months to come,” the article concluded.

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