Enter the Seattle Times.
Document after document, file after file, has been sealed — and sealed improperly — by the judges and court commissioners of King County Superior Court. A wrongful-death lawsuit against Virginia Mason Medical Center? Sealed. A lawsuit accusing a King County judge of legal malpractice? Sealed. A lawsuit blaming the state's social-services agency for the rape of a 13-year-old girl? Sealed.Ironically, to unseal the wrongly-classified cases, the Times is being forced to meet the burden of proof ignored by the judges.
Since 1990, at least 420 civil suits have been sealed in their entirety [pdf], The Seattle Times found....
The judges have displayed an ignorance of, or indifference to, the legal requirements for sealing court records. They have routinely sealed files while 1) offering little or no explanation, 2) applying the wrong legal standard, and 3) failing to acknowledge, much less weigh, the public interest in open court proceedings.
...[T]he court is requiring The Seattle Times to file a motion in every case. Feel free to file 400 motions, the court has said, a demand that imposes extraordinary expense and delay.The article notes that some judges have already reversed previous rulings when presented with evidence of their unconstitutional practices. But general noncompliance is the norm. Let's hope those staff writers at the Times have the will to carry this investigation through--and that other Washington papers (Hey Olympian! Hey News Tribune! Hey Spokesman-Review!) follow their lead.
The judges who voted against the leadership's plan cited General Rule 15, a rule adopted by the Washington Supreme Court in 1989. The rule says that once sealed, records shall be unsealed only upon agreement of the parties, or upon motion and "proof of compelling circumstances."
But this is the same rule that says a file should be sealed only for compelling circumstances.
So: The judges ignored General Rule 15 while sealing hundreds of these cases. Now, they are requiring us to follow that rule to undo something that should not have been done in the first place.
And, if they follow the rule to its letter, they will require the newspaper to show compelling circumstances to unseal, while they sealed on far less. That would flip the presumption of open courts on its head.
The people of Washington have a right to know.