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Many courts need a refresher on open records rights

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on June 12, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
June 12, 2012 5:32 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Location seems to be a key factor in determining whether citizens can successfully obtain public records they’re entitled to by state law.

At least that what News Tribune reporter Sean  Robinson discovered when he requested public documents regarding cases adjudicated in 22 district and municipal courts in the South Sound.
The cases were routine ones that Robinson knew should be made available under state open records law – for free. He asked for the documents as a private citizen to see how the courts’ staffs would respond.

Those responses were all over the map. Hats off to the ones that provided the requested documents in timely fashion: Pierce County District Court and municipal courts in Tacoma, Puyallup, Federal Way, Olympia, Gig Harbor, Buckley and Fife.

Six municipal courts wouldn’t hand over case documents: Lakewood, Fircrest, Sumner, Yelm, Eatonville and Wilkeson. Other courts told him to make an appointment for a later date (Thurston County District Court and municipal courts in Auburn, Milton and Bonney Lake), or they removed significant portions of records (municipal courts in Orting, Roy, Steilacoom and Ruston).

The less-than-forthcoming reactions show that more education needs to be done with court staff – especially those in smaller jurisdictions – to remind them of citizens’ rights to public records. When new employees are hired, it should be impressed on them that their first responsibility is to the public, not to judges, court administrators, lawyers, prosecutors or defendants.

Small-town courts may have the excuse of lack of staff or resources. Larger ones – like Lakewood – don’t. The municipal court employee in the county’s second-largest city apparently was unaware that the court was legally obliged to promptly comply with Robinson’s simple request. Instead, the reporter was given a records request form and told that the court administrator would have to handle it. However, that person wasn’t there.

To that court’s credit, it has since revised its policy. But courts shouldn’t have to be schooled in their legal obligations by a reporter. Defendants are told that ignorance of the law is no excuse; that holds true for the courts as well.

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