A Great Idea: A Courts Access Audit!

Hats off to the Tacoma News Tribune, which took a long, hard look at access to court files in the region, with disturbing results…

Several small courts in the South Sound, including half of the courthouses in Pierce County, fell short of that state standard in a recent survey of 22 district and municipal courts conducted by The News Tribune.

In municipal courts from Sumner and Fircrest to Lakewood and Yelm, among other sites, court clerks denied, hindered or delayed requests to view case records. They gave reasons that contradicted legal requirements set down by the Washington State Supreme Court.

Some courts handled requests properly, providing immediate access to files. Smaller municipal courts, typically relying on one or two staff members with limited training, were most likely to block or hinder access – but larger, higher-volume courts also fell short in some instances.

Some clerks said the cases were still “open” or “ongoing” and thus barred from public view. Some said only attorneys and defendants could view case records. Some said case files were confidential. Clerks in two courts – Sumner and Fircrest – insisted the only way to view case files was to pay for copies.

Those answers were wrong. They contradict state rules that govern courts large and small. High-ranking legal leaders, including Barbara Madsen, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said The News Tribune’s findings paint a picture that calls for correction and training.

“That’s obviously troubling,” Madsen said. “It’s troubling to think that members of the public would not be able to access records which are obviously accessible, so I’m disappointed. We will be looking further into the situation.”