Washington SC: Judicial records not subject to public access

By Chris Rizo | Oct 15, 2009

Susan Owens

OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline)-The Washington state judiciary is exempt from public records law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Public records activist David Koenig had requested the release of all public records related to the resignation of former Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Colleen Hartl, including correspondence to and from Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Michael Morgan, the court's presiding judge.

Hartl was censured by a state panel last year after having a sexual encounter with a public defender who routinely appeared in her courtroom.

The city of Federal Way released 183 pages of documents to Koenig under his February 2008 public records request, but city officials refused to provide him correspondence.

In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Washington Public Records Act "does not apply to the judiciary and judicial records."

The high court's decision upholds rulings in King County Superior Court and the state Court of Appeals.

In the majority opinion by Supreme Court Justice Susan Owens, the court cited a 1986 ruling it made related to public records access of judicial records.

"We previously considered this issue in Nast v. Michels, 107 Wn.2d 300, 730 P.2d 54 (1986), where we held that the PRA does not apply to court case files because the judiciary is not included in the PRA's definition of 'agency.' Id. at 305-06. We conclude that Nast continues to stand for the principle that the PRA does not apply to the judiciary and that the appellant has not demonstrated a compelling reason to overturn Nast," the court ruled.

The ruling continued: "Under the doctrine of stare decisis, we will overturn precedent only if it is incorrect and harmful and appellant has failed to demonstrate either. Thus, this court affirms the trial court and holds that the PRA does not apply to the judiciary."

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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