Secret Court Files vs Open Courts

Secret Court Files vs Open Courts

The National Law Journal reports that thirty two of the ninety two federal districts use an electronic case filing program that hides the existence of existing files. If the search involves a sealed file, instead of disclosing it’s existence the electronic response is "case does not exist" or "number is not valid." The NLJ reports that the Judicial Conference of the United States, which makes policy for Lock federal courts, has "strongly urged" federal courts to eliminate these false and fraudulent responses and instead respond with the truth i.e. "sealed file." It’s difficult to believe that a United States federal court would sponsor lies about it’s records. However, some time ago Trial Lawyers for Public Justice challenged an Oregon court’s complete removal of anything that would reveal a lawsuit had been filed and decided.

In Washington state, the Seattle Times exposure of superior court’s casual practice of sealing files ("The cases your judges are hiding from you") resulted in a change of rules. Our firm’s case of Rufer v Abbott Laboratories, 154 Wn 2d 530 (2005) set the standard for openness in Washington’s courts. Judge William Downing presided over the trial and wrote an opinion, regarding a request for a protective order to seal exhibit information, which made it clear that court’s must abide by our state constitution which requires that "Justice in all cases shall be administered openly." In Washington state documents filed with the court are presumptively open to the public unless there is a "compelling interest which overrides the public’s right to the open administration of justice." Woo v Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co 137 Wash App 480 (2007)

Secrecy in our government is pervasive. Secrecy in our courts is unconstitutional and un-American. Keeping citizens in the dark, hiding facts and telling the public lies are what we expect of dictatorships, not democracies. Judges and lawyers should be leading the fight for  the right of public access to our courts and our government.

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