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Friday, March 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Sealing court files: not a simple call

Special to The Times

The Seattle Times, in a series of recent articles, has raised concerns about sealed civil court files in King County Superior Court. As presiding judge, I would like to provide additional information on this issue.

In deciding whether a file should be sealed, two competing issues are at stake. The Times articles have highlighted one: the right of citizens of Washington to the open administration of justice. The other significant concern is the privacy and safety needs of vulnerable litigants.

As an example, a victim of domestic violence may bring a court proceeding to change their name in order to escape an abuser. This file may be sealed for legitimate safety concerns. Court files often contain medical and psychiatric records of injured plaintiffs. Sexually abused children may seek damages for their abuse and ask that their file be sealed to avoid the further humiliation by schoolmates when the public gains access to the details of the abuse. Some files contain sensitive financial information that may lead to identity theft.

While the circumstances will be unique to each case, these considerations are of special importance now that our court has voted to make available to the public on the Internet all its general civil, criminal and probate files. The court may in the future make its family-law (divorce and custody) files available online as well.

Although privacy and safety concerns can often be addressed by sealing part of a file, some files may require sealing in their entirety. Yet, only a small fraction of this court's files have been completely sealed. King County Superior Court is one of the largest and busiest in the nation. Every year, more than 70,000 cases of all types are filed, of which about 24,000 are general civil cases. In the 15-year period examined by The Times, approximately 351,000 general civil cases were filed. Four-hundred-and-twenty sealed civil files represent a minute fraction of the whole.

It is important to understand that the law of sealing files has changed substantially in recent years. It was not until 2004, in Dreiling v. Jain, that the Washington Supreme Court announced for the first time that the guidelines to be applied in criminal cases for sealing part of the record also apply to dispositive motions in civil cases.

Only earlier this month did the Washington Supreme Court — after three years of discussion and consideration by the judiciary and other interested parties — clarify its court rules to require that where possible, court files be redacted rather than sealed. The amended rule now requires that the trial court make explicit written findings balancing safety and privacy concerns, on the one hand, and the public interest, on the other. Finally, the amendments now state that agreement of the parties alone is an insufficient basis to seal or redact court files. This court and its judges participated in drafting those changes. We welcome this clarification and are committed to following this rule.

In 2005, The Times requested that our court unseal files that The Times believed did not meet appropriate standards for sealing. In January, we adopted a procedure to address the cases The Times has identified. The procedure requires that notice be given to litigants so they may have the opportunity to advise the court whether compelling circumstances exist for continued sealing of the file, or whether the file may be redacted or unsealed. The process recognizes that the decision to seal or unseal a court file is a complex one.

In the final analysis, each judicial officer will make his or her own independent decision on how to deal with and decide these issues. Either way, our judicial officers work hard to apply the law and make fair decisions. We understand the public expects no less.

Michael J. Trickey is the presiding judge of King County Superior Court.

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