Washington Supreme Court Holds Court Records Exempt from Public Disclosure
The Washington Supreme Court issued an opinion this morning holding that the Public Records Act (PRA) does not apply to any records held by the state judicial branch. The decision, City of Federal Way v. Koenig, affirmed the longstanding rule that the PRA does not apply to a court's case files, and also extended that rule to apply to judicial correspondence and other court records unrelated to case files.
Today's decision was based on a broad reading of Nast v. Michels, a 1986 opinion that held that the PRA did not apply to case files. In Nast, the Supreme Court reasoned that the PRA did not specifically refer to state courts or court records, and that the public already had access to case files under a well-developed body of case law. Since Nast, state court rules and case law have evolved in a manner that generally assures public access to case records absent compelling circumstances.
Koenig raises an issue that Nast did not reach: whether the PRA applies to records held by the judicial branch that are not related to cases. Plaintiff David Koenig requested all records related to the resignation of a municipal court judge, including all correspondence with another judge of the same court. The city responsible for the court refused to produce the correspondence. Koenig also sought documents related to jury duty exemptions and the appointment of temporary judges. The city provided some documents but withheld those that it classified as "court documents."
In an opinion by Justice Susan Owens, six justices held that the records were exempt from disclosure because the court was not an "agency" within the PRA's statutory definition. The majority found that Nast's interpretation of the statute was itself a sufficient basis to withhold judicial branch documents from Koenig. The court also held that Nast was binding precedent, and declined Koenig's invitation to overrule it.
Two justices (Stephens and Alexander) dissented. In their view, Nast did not reach the issue of judicial records other than case files, and that the PRA's definition of "agency" could be read broadly enough to encompass state courts.
The decision is City of Federal Way v. Koenig, (No. 82288-3 September 15, 2009). Click here to view the majority opinion.