Washington Supreme Court Clarifies Rules for Sealing Court Records
The Washington Supreme Court has held that a party filing court documents under seal may withdraw those documents from the public record if its motion to seal is denied. The decision guts a King County local rule providing otherwise. The decision also clarifies that General Rule 15, which governs sealing and unsealing of case files, does not require such documents be publicly available until the court rules on the motion to seal.
In State v. McEnroe, No. 86084-0 (June 28, 2012), the Court construed King County Local General Rule 15, which states that if a court denies a motion to seal, “the judge will file the original unredacted document(s) unsealed with an order denying the motion.” The defendant, who is facing a capital murder trial, sought to file a motion with the trial court under seal, but asked that he be allowed to withdraw the motion and underlying documents if the motion to seal was denied. The defendant claimed public disclosure of the underlying motion would endanger his defense. The trial court, citing King County LGR 15, denied the request.
The Supreme Court reversed. The Court found that GR 15 provides a “uniform procedure for the destruction, sealing, and redaction of court records,” but is silent as to whether documents filed with a motion to seal must be publicly available pending a decision on the motion. The Court recognized that King County LGR 15 was designed to fill this perceived gap, but nevertheless held that such documents are not available to the public pending a decision on the motion to seal.
In addition, the Court found that parties may withdraw documents upon denial of a motion to seal, even though GR 15 is silent on this issue, too. The Court found the right to withdraw is “supported by other provisions with GR 15, by court rules from other jurisdictions, and is consistent with our case law.”
Those cases require the public disclosure of any document that a court considers in rendering a decision. The Court found: “Permitting withdrawal does not affect our commitment to open courts because the withdrawn documents are never filed. They are not and cannot be considered by the court. Withdrawn documents offer no more insight into court proceedings than do sealed documents.”
The decision brings state sealing procedures into conformance with those followed by federal courts in Western Washington.