Monday, June 11, 2012

Access to Court Records

Two recent stories concern access to court records:

Sunshine Committee

Senator Adam Kline recently resigned from the state's Sunshine Committee (a/k/a the Public Records Accountability Committee), citing concerns about privacy. State Sen. Adam Kline leaves ‘Sunshine’ board, Olympian, June 11, 2012.

The committee is reviewing the hundreds of exemptions to disclosure in our states Public Records Act. Kline says that the committee has become dominated by press representatives, which favor disclosure, and doesn't have enough privacy advocates.
The issue that sparked Kline's resignation involved juror questionnaires: The Freedom Foundation seeks access to them to find non-citizens and check whether they are registered to vote. The Freedom Foundation favors increased identification requirements for voters; Kline believes that the organization is trying to impede participation by likely Democratic voters. See Kline's statement; The Freedom Foundation's blog post.

Court Records
According to the state constitution and court rules, the public is supposed to have access to case files, with certain restrictions (e.g., Social Security numbers are kept private; files may be sealed under certain conditions). Reporters from the News Tribune set out to test how it works. They went to district and municipal courts—the courts where misdemeanors and small civil cases are handled—and, without saying they were reporters, asked to see recent misdemeanor files. In some courts, they were shown the files immediately, but in about half the courts in Pierce County they were given the runaround:

Some clerks said the cases were still “open” or “ongoing” and thus barred from public view. Some said only attorneys and defendants could view case records. Some said case files were confidential. Clerks in two courts – Sumner and Fircrest – insisted the only way to view case files was to pay for copies.  
Those answers were wrong. They contradict state rules that govern courts large and small. High-ranking legal leaders, including Barbara Madsen, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said The News Tribune’s findings paint a picture that calls for correction and training.
Open courts, closed files: Hitting roadblocks in quest for public records, News Tribune (Tacoma), June 10, 2012.

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