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.”

Delaware Re-Evaluates Secret Juvenile Justice System…

I have long argued that a bit of sunshine would do a great deal of good in the world of juvenile justice, as secretive an institution as exists in American life. Delaware officials might just agree, at least in part. Good for them:

State lawmakers are considering whether to order a study of the feasibility of opening Family Court proceedings to the public.

Open-government advocates have complained for years about the secrecy in which Family Court operates.

Family Court is a trial court that handles domestic relations, juvenile delinquency, and intra-family misdemeanors. Under state law, most Family Court proceedings involving issues such as divorce, adoption, termination of parental rights and custody issues are closed to the public.

But the Delaware Constitution says all courts must be open.

A resolution to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday calls for the creation of task force to determine whether existing laws regarding Family Court proceedings should be modified to reflect a presumption of open courts.