To understand opportunities to access our state courts and the records they host, we need to understand how they are formed and how they operate.
Washington’s judiciary and judicial system operate independent of most statutory requirements for access, but they do function with their own sets of rules.
The state courts are open to the public, but while court rules define a degree of openness, it remains the prerogative of judges to manage that process to protect the system’s independence and its fairness.
The state judicial system is not covered by the Open Public Meetings or Open Public Records Acts.
The presentations here are offered to remind us of the state court system’s organization and function: its mission. It further offers detailed information about court records, their accessibility and current limits to access. It should be noted that administration of the courts generally comes under the public records act; court records, however, while mostly available to the public, are controlled by the judiciary and the courts’ rule-making process under the Supreme Court and its Administrative Office of the Courts.
Links to specific documents and resources related to our state courts and their accessibility follow the text below.
A Guide to Washington Courts
(Twelfth Edition — 2011)
Washington Court System
THE SUPREME COURT
Nine justices serve six-year terms, staggered
- Hears appeals from the Court of Appeals
- Administers state court system
COURT OF APPEALS
Three judges for each division serve six-year terms, staggered
Division I, Seattle; Division II, Tacoma; Division III, Spokane
- Hears appeals from lower courts except those in jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
Judges serve four-year terms
- Civil matters
- Domestic relations
- Felony criminal cases
- Juvenile matters
- Appeals from courts of limited jurisdiction
District and Municipal courts
Judges serve four-year terms
- Misdemeanor criminal cases
- Traffic, non-traffic, and parking infractions
- Domestic violence protection orders
- Civil actions of $75,000 or less
- Small claims up to $5,000
Visiting Our Courts
The Supreme Court is located in Olympia in the Temple of Justice on the state capitol grounds. Courtrooms of the three divisions of the state Court of Appeals are located in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane. Courthouses in each of the state’s 39 counties house superior court courtrooms. Each county has at least one district court and many of the state’s cities and towns have a municipal court.
Though some proceedings are not open to the public, visitors are welcome to attend all others without appointment. It is usually advisable for large groups to check in advance with the court clerk, administrator, bailiff, or judge about the availability of seating and parking.
Types of Cases
All cases filed in the courts are either civil or criminal.
Civil cases are usually disputes between private persons, corporations, governmental bodies, or other organizations. Examples are actions arising from landlord and tenant disputes, personal injuries, breach of warranty on consumer goods, contract disputes, adoptions, marriage dissolutions (divorce), probates, guardianships, and professional liability suits.
Decisions are based upon a preponderance of evidence. The party suing (plaintiff) must prove his or her case by presenting evidence that is more persuading to the trier of fact (judge or jury) than the opposing evidence.
There are special court procedures for the protection of persons threatened by harassment and domestic violence. Persons may request protection orders through documents available at their County Clerk’s office.
Criminal cases are brought by the government against individuals or corporations accused of committing a crime. The government makes the charge because a crime is considered an act against all of society. The prosecuting attorney prosecutes the charge against the accused person (defendant) on behalf of the government (plaintiff). The prosecution must prove to the judge or jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The more serious crimes are called felonies and are punishable by more than a year’s confinement in a state prison. Examples are arson, assault, larceny, burglary, murder, and rape.
Lesser crimes are called misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. Both are punishable by confinement in a city or county jail. Examples of gross misdemeanors are theft of property or services valued at up to $250 and driving while under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs. Among the many types of misdemeanors are disorderly conduct, prostitution, and possession of less than 40 grams of marijuana.
Whether the case is civil or criminal, or tried by a judge or jury in a superior, district, or municipal court, the procedure is essentially the same. There may be some differences from court to court, however.
Jurors are randomly selected from voter registration lists, and lists of those who are valid driver’s license or “identicard” holders. In superior courts, 12 persons are seated on a jury. In district courts, the jury consists of six or fewer people.
In district, municipal and superior courts, jury selection is handled in the same manner. Selection, or voir dire, consists of questions asked of juror candidates by the judge and attorneys to determine if they have any biases that would prevent them from hearing the case. Questions can be general (directed at the whole panel) or specific (directed at specific candidates).
If an answer indicates a prospective juror may not be qualified, that individual may be challenged for cause by a party, through his or her attorney. It is up to the judge to decide whether the individual should be disqualified.
After questions have been asked, peremptory challenges—those for which no reason need be given—may be exercised by an attorney and the prospective juror will be excused. Just how many challenges may be exercised depends on the type of case being tried. How they are exercised (orally or in writing) depends upon local procedure. After all challenges have been completed, the judge will announce which persons have been chosen to serve on the case. Those not chosen are excused.
After the judge or clerk administers the oath to the jurors, the case begins. Because the plaintiff always has the burden of proof, his or her attorney makes the first opening statement.
Opening Statements are an outline of the facts a party expects to establish during the trial. The plaintiff opens first, then the defendant. The defendant can choose to delay making an opening statement until after the plaintiff rests or presents his or her evidence.
Evidence is testimony and exhibits presented by each side that is admitted by the judge. The plaintiff presents evidence by direct examination of each witness, who are then subject to cross examination by the defendant. After plaintiff rests, the defendant presents witnesses who may be cross examined by the plaintiff’s attorney.
After the defendant rests, the plaintiff may present rebuttal evidence. Following that, the evidentiary phase of the trial is over.
Jury Instructions are provided by the judge. They include how the law must be applied to that case. Jurors may be given written copies of the instructions.
Closing Arguments follow the judge’s instructions. Attorneys for each party make these statements. As with opening statements, the plaintiff goes first. After the defendant presents closing arguments, the plaintiff is allowed time for rebuttal.
Jury Deliberations follow the closing arguments. The bailiff or other court-designated person escorts the jury to the jury room to begin deliberations. While deliberating, jurors are not allowed to have contact with anyone, except as designated by the court.
Criminal Sentencing in Washington is carried out by superior court judges who make sentencing decisions under a determinate sentencing system.
Under this system offenders convicted of felony crimes are sentenced according to a uniform set of guidelines. The guidelines’ structure do not eliminate a sentencing judge’s discretion. The purpose of the system is to assure that those sentenced for similar crimes, and who have comparable criminal backgrounds, receive similar treatment.
A judge can depart from these guidelines only if compelling circumstances exist. Only sentences imposed outside of the guidelines can be appealed.
All convictions, adult or juvenile, include mandatory penalty assessments, which are deposited in the state’s victim-compensation fund. A judge may also order the offender to make restitution to victims for damages, loss of property and for actual expenses for treatment of injuries or lost wages.
Those convicted of misdemeanors may be given probation and/or time in a local jail. Violating the terms of probation can result in a longer jail term.
Crime Victims and Witnesses, under state law, “ . . . are treated with dignity, respect, courtesy, and sensitivity; and that rights extended (to them) are honored and protected…in a manner no less vigorous than the protection afforded criminal defendants.”
The law lists nine rights of crime victims and witnesses, and in some cases, their families. These include the right to be told about the outcome of a case in which they were involved, and to be notified in advance if a court proceeding at which they were to appear has been canceled.
If threatened with harm, victims and witnesses have the right to protection. They also have the right to prompt medical attention if injured during the commission of a crime. While waiting to testify, they must be provided with a waiting area away from the defendant and the defendant’s family and friends.
Stolen property is to be returned quickly. Criminal justice system personnel are expected to help victims and witnesses work out employment-related problems that might arise during the periods of time they are involved in the trial.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
There is a means to address disputes out of an open, public court setting. “Alternative dispute resolution” (ADR) offers a variety of ways to resolve disputes in lieu of an official trial. ADR can be conducted in any manner to which the parties agree—it can be as casual as a discussion around a conference table, or as structured and discreet as a private court trial.
Advantages to solving conflicts through ADR include decreased litigation costs and an expedited outcome. The most commonly used techniques are mediation and arbitration.
Mediation is a confidential, voluntary, non-binding process, which uses a neutral third party to guide parties towards a mutually beneficial resolution of their disagreement. Resolutions are created to suit both parties, and may include an agreement not available via the court system.
The mediator does not impose his or her will or judgment on the parties, but helps them decide for themselves whether to settle, and on what terms. The mediator is a catalyst, helping parties reach agreement by identifying issues, exploring possible bases for agreement, and weighing the consequences of not settling.
Mediation works well in one-on-one disputes and in large, multi-group conflicts. It is effective in all types of civil matters, and may occur before or after the filing of a lawsuit. Although attorneys may be present during the mediation process, they are not essential to the process.
Arbitration involves a neutral third party chosen to hear both sides of the case, then resolves it by rendering a specific decision or award. Arbitration is a common way of solving disputes with insurance companies on specific claims.
An arbitration proceeding is similar to a regular court trial. The main difference is that arbitration can be either binding or non-binding, as agreed in advance by the disputing parties. If binding arbitration has been chosen, the decision or award is final.
In Washington counties with a population of 70,000 or more, the superior court may require mandatory arbitration of some civil actions, usually those in which the sole relief sought is a money judgment. Unlike voluntary arbitration, mandatory arbitration operates under the authority of the court system. By law, it can only be used to settle disputes of $35,000 or less.
Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
These include district and municipal courts. District courts are county courts and serve defined territories, both incorporated and unincorporated, within the counties. Municipal courts are those created by cities and towns. More than two million cases are filed annually in district and municipal courts. Excluding parking infractions, seven out of every eight cases filed in all state courts are filed at this level. This is due primarily to the broad jurisdiction these courts have over traffic violations and misdemeanors.
District Courts have jurisdiction over both criminal and civil cases. Criminal jurisdiction includes misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors cases that involve traffic or non-traffic offenses. Examples include: Driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs (DUI), reckless driving, driving with a suspended driver’s license and assault in the fourth degree. Preliminary hearings for felony cases are also within the jurisdiction of the district courts. The maximum penalty for gross misdemeanors is one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. The maximum penalty for misdemeanors is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A defendant is entitled to a jury trial for these offenses. Juries in courts of limited jurisdiction are composed of six people as opposed to superior court juries, which have 12 people.
Jurisdiction in civil cases includes damages for injury to individuals or personal property and contract disputes in amounts of up to $75,000. District courts also have jurisdiction over traffic and non-traffic infractions, civil proceedings for which a monetary penalty—but no jail sentence-may be imposed. There is no right to a jury trial for an infraction. District courts have jurisdiction to issue domestic violence and anti-harassment protection orders and no-contact orders. They also have jurisdiction to hear change-of-name petitions and certain lien foreclosures. More information on these procedures can be obtained by contacting your local district court. Small claims are limited to money claims of up to $5,000. These are filed and heard in the Small Claims Department of the district court. Generally, each party is self-represented —attorneys are not permitted except with the permission of the judge. Witnesses may not be subpoenaed, but may be allowed to voluntarily testify for a party. Examples of cases heard: Neighborhood disputes, consumer problems, landlord/tenant matters and small collections. The district court clerk can provide specific information about filing a claim.
Municipal Courts hear cases involving violations of municipal or city ordinances. A municipal court’s authority over these ordinance violations is similar to the authority that district courts have over state law violations. The ordinance violation must have occurred within the boundaries of the municipality. Like district courts, municipal courts only have jurisdiction over gross misdemeanors, misdemeanors and infractions. Municipal courts do not accept civil or small claims cases. As with district courts, municipal courts can issue domestic violence protection orders and no-contact orders. A municipal court can issue anti-harassment protection orders upon adoption of a local court rule establishing that process.
Traffic Violation Bureaus (TVB) may be created by cities in addition to a municipal court. TVBs handle traffic violations of municipal ordinances that involve no possible incarceration. The primary purpose of a traffic violation bureau is to expedite the handling of traffic cases that do not require any judicial involvement. The TVB is under the supervision of the municipal court and the supervising court designates those traffic law violations that a TVB may process.
Domestic Violence and Anti-harassment Orders daily confront district and municipal courts. Besides adjudicating criminal domestic violence and anti-harassment cases, courts of limited jurisdiction also enter protection orders. These are no-contact orders, orders of protection and anti-harassment orders. No-contact orders and orders of protection can be obtained in either a municipal or district court. Anti-harassment orders can be obtained in district courts, as well as in municipal courts that have adopted local court rules establishing the process. Court personnel are knowledgeable about domestic violence issues and can assist a victim in completing domestic violence or anti-harassment forms. However, court personnel cannot give legal advice.
Appeals from Courts of Limited Jurisdiction are made from “the record” of a lower court to the superior court where only legal errors from the proceeding below are argued. In courts of limited jurisdiction, the record is made from an electronic recording of the original proceedings and court documents.
There is no additional evidence or testimony presented on appeal. The one exception is an appeal from a small claims case. Small claims cases are heard de novo (or anew) in superior court on the record from the court of limited jurisdiction.
Judges for district court are elected to four-year terms. Municipal court judges may be elected or appointed to a four-year term, depending on state law provisions. All judges are required to attend 45 hours of judicial training every three years. Judges of courts of limited jurisdiction belong to the District and Municipal Court Judges’ Association, which was created by state statute to study and make recommendations concerning the operation of courts served by its members.
Court Support Personnel for courts of limited jurisdiction include administrative support staff. Under the direction of the presiding judge, the staff is responsible for maintaining the court’s fiscal, administrative and court records.
Probation for convicted persons in courts of limited jurisdiction is limited to two years, except in DUI convictions where a court can order probation for up to five years. A probation counselor administers programs that provide pre-sentence investigations, supervision and probationary treatment for misdemeanant offenders in a district or municipal court.
Probation counselors can make sentencing recommendations to the court, including appropriate treatment (i.e. drug and alcohol counseling) that an offender should receive. The probation counselor periodically advises the district/municipal court judges of an offender’s progress while the offender in on supervision.
Because there is no limit on the types of civil and criminal cases heard, superior courts are called general jurisdiction courts. Superior courts also have authority to hear cases appealed from courts of limited jurisdiction.
Most superior court proceedings are recorded so a written record is available if a case is appealed. Appellate courts can then properly review cases appealed to them. Some superior courts use video recordings instead of the customary written transcripts prepared by court reporters.
Appeals may be made to the Court of Appeals. In some cases, they go directly to the Supreme Court.
Juvenile Court is a division of the superior court, established by law to deal with youths under the age of 18 who commit offenses (offenders) or are abused or neglected (dependents). Like adults, juvenile offenders are sentenced according to a uniform set of guidelines. Taking into account the seriousness of the offenses committed and the history of the subject’s prior offenses, the guidelines establish a range of sentences, and sentence conditions.
A juvenile sentence or disposition outside the standard range is possible if the court finds the standard disposition would amount to a “manifest injustice,” to the juvenile or to the community. Dispositions within the standard range are not appealable; manifest injustice dispositions are.
Dependent children are usually placed under the care of the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Courts frequently place such children outside the home for varying periods of time.
Districts—All superior courts are grouped into single or multi-county districts. There are 30 such districts in Washington State. Counties with large populations usually comprise one district, while in less-populated areas, a district may consist of two or more counties. A courthouse is located in each of Washington’s 39 counties in a municipal setting called a County Seat. In rural districts, judges rotate between their counties as needed. Each county courthouse has its own courtroom and staff.
Most superior court districts in Washington serve the one county in which they are located. Several of Washington’s smaller counties are served by a multi-county superior court district. Superior court administration is consolidated for each district. Those counties belonging to a district include:
Skamania and Klickitat
Columbia, Garfield and Asotin
Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille
Benton and Franklin
Pacific and Wahkiakum
Judges of our Superior Courts are elected to four-year terms. Vacancies between elections are filled by appointment of the Governor, and the newly appointed judge serves until the next general election. To qualify for the position, a person must be an attorney admitted to practice in Washington.
There is a presiding judge in each county or judicial district who handles specific administrative functions and acts as spokesperson for the court.
Superior court judges belong to an organization established by law, called the Superior Court Judges’ Association. Specific committees of the association work throughout the year to improve the court system and to communicate with other court levels, the Legislature, bar associations, the media, and the public. Officers of the organization are elected each year at the association’s annual spring conference.
Superior Court Support Personnel
Bailiff—Responsibilities and designation of a court bailiff vary from one court to another, depending upon the needs of the court served. The bailiff’s primary duties are to call the court to order, maintain order in the courtroom, and attend to the needs of jurors. In some counties, bailiffs with legal training serve as legal assistants to the judge.
County Clerk—The county clerk is an elected official who maintains the court’s official records and oversees all record-keeping matters pertaining to the operation of the courts. Among other things, the county clerk may be responsible for notification of jurors, maintenance of all papers and exhibits filed in cases before the court, and filing cases for the superior court.
Commissioner—Most courts employ court commissioners to ease the judges’ caseload. Court commissioners are usually attorneys licensed to practice in Washington. Working under the direction of a judge, court commissioners assume many of the same powers and duties of a superior court judge. Matters heard by the court commissioner include probate, uncontested marriage dissolutions, the signing of court orders for uncontested matters, and other judicial duties as required by the judge. The state constitution limits each county to no more than three court commissioners, but additional commissioners may be appointed for family law and mental health matters.
Court Administrator—Many superior courts employ court administrators. Their functions vary, depending upon the policies of the court served. Generally, the court administrator is responsible for notification of jurors, supervision of court staff, assisting the presiding judge in budget planning for the court, assignment of cases, and implementation of general court policies.
Juvenile Court Administrator—The juvenile court administrator directs the local juvenile court probation program and provides general administrative support to the juvenile division of superior court. Each of the state’s juvenile courts is unique in the range and diversity of programs and services it offers, though all offer some type of diagnostic and diversion services. A number of juvenile court administrators direct county-level detention programs. The administrator is generally appointed by judges of the superior court; however, in a few counties, judges have transferred this responsibility to the county legislative authority.
Court Reporter—Stenographic notes are taken in court by a court reporter as the record of the proceeding. Some court reporters assume additional duties as secretary to one or more judges.
The Court of Appeals
Most cases appealed from superior courts go directly to the Court of Appeals. It is a non-discretionary appellate court—it must accept all appeals filed with it. The Court of Appeals has authority to reverse (overrule), remand (send back to the lower court), modify, or affirm the decision of the lower court.
The court decides each case after reviewing the transcript of the record in the superior court and considering the arguments of the parties. Generally, the court hears oral arguments in each case but does not take live testimony.
Appellate Process—Most cases appealed from superior courts go directly to the Court of Appeals, though certain, specific types of cases go directly to the Supreme Court (see Supreme Court).
Divisions—The Court of Appeals is divided into three divisions. Each division serves a specific geographic area of the state. Division I, located in the One Union Square Building in downtown Seattle, has 10 judges. Division II in Tacoma has seven judges. Division III has five judges and is located in downtown Spokane.
Judges—The 22 judges on the Court serve six-year staggered terms to ensure that all judges are not up for reelection at the same time. Each division is divided into three geographic districts and a specific number of judges must be elected from each:
Division I Seattle
District 1- King County, from which seven judges must be elected.
District 2- Snohomish County, from which two judges are elected.
District 3- Island, San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties elect one judge.
Division II Tacoma
District 1- Pierce County, from which three judges are elected.
District 2- Clallam, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Kitsap, Mason and Thurston Counties, from which two judges are elected.
District 3- Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Pacific, Skamania and Wahkiakum Counties, from which two judges are elected.
Division III Spokane
District 1- Ferry, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Stevens Counties, from which two judges are elected.
District 2- Adams, Asotin, Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Walla Walla and Whitman Counties, from which one judge is elected.
District 3- Chelan, Douglas, Kittitas, Klickitat and Yakima Counties, from which two judges are elected.
To qualify for a position on the Court of Appeals, a person must have practiced law in Washington State for five years and, at the time of election, lived for a year or more in the district from which that position was drawn. Vacancies are filled by the Governor and the appointee serves until the next general election.
A presiding chief judge for all three divisions is elected for a one-year term. Duties of the presiding chief judge include coordination of business matters among the three divisions. Each division elects its own chief judge to handle administrative details at the division level.
Appeals Court Support Personnel
Clerk of the Court—Appointed by the court, the clerk is its chief administrative officer. The clerk is responsible for filings, and plans, organizes and supervises the administration of the clerk’s office, manages court facilities, and sets court calendars.
Commissioner—Judges of each division also appoint commissioners who decide some motions that come before the court. Commissioners also perform additional duties that promote the effective administration of the court.
Law Clerks—Each judge is assisted by clerks trained in the law. The clerks research the law and assist in writing court opinions.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the state’s highest court. Its opinions are published, become the law of the state, and set precedent for subsequent cases decided in Washington.
The Court has original jurisdiction of petitions against state officers and can review decisions of lower courts if the money or value of property involved exceeds $200. The $200 limitation is not in effect if the case involves a question of the legality of a tax, duty, assessment, toll, or municipal fine, or the validity of a statute.
Direct Supreme Court review of a trial court decision is permitted if the action involves a state officer, a trial court has ruled a statute or ordinance unconstitutional, conflicting statutes or rules of law are involved, or the issue is of broad public interest and requires a prompt and ultimate determination. All cases in which the death penalty has been imposed are reviewed directly by the Supreme Court. In all other cases, review of Court of Appeals decisions is left to the discretion of the court.
Motions to be determined by the Court, and petitions for review of Court of Appeals decisions, are heard by five-member departments of the Court. A less-than-unanimous vote on a petition requires that the entire court consider the matter.
All nine justices hear and dispose of cases argued on the appeal calendar. Each case is decided on the basis of the record, plus written and oral arguments. Exhibits are generally not allowed and no live testimony is heard.
Court Rules—The Supreme Court is the final rule-making authority for all of the state’s courts. Though local courts make their own rules of procedure, these rules must conform to, or not conflict with, those established by the Supreme Court. In addition, the Supreme Court has administrative responsibility for operation of the state court system. It also has a supervisory responsibility over certain activities of the Washington State Bar Association, including attorney disciplinary matters.
Justices—The nine Supreme Court justices are elected to six-year terms. Each term is staggered to maintain continuity of the court. The only requirement for the office is that the prospective justice be admitted to the practice of law in Washington State. Vacancies are filled by appointment of the Governor until the next general election.
Supreme Court Support Personnel
Bailiff—A court-appointed official, the bailiff announces the opening of each session of the court and performs a variety of other duties as required by the court.
Clerk—Appointed by the court, the clerk of the Supreme Court maintains the court’s records, files, and documents. The clerk is also responsible for managing the court’s caseflow, including the preparation of its calendars, arranging for pro tem (temporary) judges and docketing all cases and papers filed.
The clerk supplies attorneys, opposing counsel and other appropriate counsel with copies of Supreme Court briefs, and records attorney admissions to the practice of law in Washington State. The clerk also rules on costs in each case decided by the court, and may also rule on various other procedural motions. The clerk is assisted by a deputy clerk and supporting staff.
Commissioner—The commissioner, also appointed by the court, decides those types of motions, which are not required by court rule to be decided by the justices. Called rulings, these decisions are subject to review by the court. The commissioner also heads the court’s central staff. The commissioner and other attorneys on the central staff assist the court in screening cases to determine which ones should be accepted for full hearing. The court is asked to hear more than 1,000 cases each year, though only a small portion of these can be accepted.
Court Administrator—Washington’s administrator for the courts is appointed by the Supreme Court and is responsible for the execution of administrative policies and rules in Washington’s judicial system. With the assistance of a support staff, the administrator compiles court statistics; develops and promotes modern management procedures to accommodate the needs of the state’s courts; studies and evaluates information relating to the operations and administrative methods of the judicial system; and provides pertinent information to the members of the judicial community, the other branches of government, and the general public. The administrator’s staff also prepares and submits budget and accounting estimates relating to state appropriations for the judicial system.
Reporter of Decisions—Appointed by the Supreme Court, the reporter of decisions is responsible for preparing Supreme Court and Court of Appeals decisions for publication. Decisions are published in weekly “advance sheets” and in the permanent volumes of Washington Reports and Washington Appellate Reports.
Law Clerk—Law clerks primarily provide research and writing assistance to the justices.
Law Librarian—The state law librarian is appointed by the Supreme Court to maintain a complete, up-to-date law library.
How Washington Courts are Financed
Funds to support Washington’s courts come from state and local sources.
State Sources—Only a small portion of the total cost of operating state government is devoted to the courts. Court operations funded directly by the state include those of the Supreme Court (including the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office, the Reporter of Decisions, the State Law Library, and the Administrative Office of the Courts), the Court of Appeals, half of the salaries and benefits of superior court judges, and a smaller portion of salaries of district court judges.
Local Sources—As is the case at the state level, the amount spent to support local courts is small relative to expenditures made for other city and county government operations. Though local governments finance the major portion of the state’s judicial system, during recent years those expenditures have represented only about six percent of all funds spent by local governments. Local funds support the cost of court administration, juries, local law libraries, court facilities, civil process services and witness expenses.
Washington’s Commission on Judicial Conduct was established to investigate allegations of a judge’s misconduct or disability. Its membership consists of two lawyers, three judges, and six non-lawyer citizens.
Any person, organization or association may submit written or oral allegations of misconduct. These are reviewed by the Commission to see if the Code of Judicial Conduct was violated or if any permanent disability exists.
Because the Commission has no authority to modify judicial decisions, objections to a particular official judicial action will not normally trigger Commission action. The Commission’s power is limited to two areas: (1) misconduct, as defined by the Code of Judicial Conduct, and (2) disability which is, or likely to become, serious enough to interfere with a judge’s official duties.
If misconduct is found, the Commission may admonish, reprimand, or censure the judge, or may recommend to the Supreme Court that the judge be suspended or removed. Like a trial, Commission fact-finding hearings are held in public. The Supreme Court has appellate review of the Commission’s decision, or in the case of a Commission recommendation, the Court makes the final decision after reviewing the Commission’s record and taking argument on the matter.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
A Guide to Washington State Courts is supported in part by a grant from the Program on Law and Society of the Open Society Institute and the League of Women Voters of Washington Education Fund.
Previous editions of this guide were published in 1979, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1991, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2006 and 2008 by the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Revisions are made regularly.
Note to educators:
Definitions of italicized court terms used in this guide are included in a companion text, A Guide to Terms Used in Washington Court, an online-only publication. Online copies of A Guide to Terms and A Guide to Washington State Courts are available and can be downloaded from the Washington Courts homepage at www.courts.wa.gov, by clicking on “Resources, Publications and Reports,” and scrolling down to “Informational Brochures.”
ACCESS TO COURT RECORDS
(a) Policy and Purpose. It is the policy of the courts to facilitate access to court records as provided by Article I, Section 10 of the Washington State Constitution. Access to court records is not absolute and shall be consistent with reasonable expectations of personal privacy as provided by article 1, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution and shall not unduly burden the business of the courts.
(b) Scope. This rule applies to all court records, regardless of the physical form of the court record, the method of recording the court record or the method of storage of the court record. Administrative records are not within the scope of this rule. Court records are further governed by GR 22.
(1) “Access” means the ability to view or obtain a copy of a court record.
(2) “Administrative record” means any record pertaining to the management, supervision or administration of the judicial branch, including any court, board, or committee appointed by or under the direction of any court or other entity within the judicial branch, or the office of any county clerk.
(3) “Bulk distribution” means distribution of all, or a significant subset, of the information in court records, as is and without modification.
(4) “Court record” includes, but is not limited to:
(i) Any document, information, exhibit, or other thing that is maintained by a court in connection with a judicial proceeding, and
(ii) Any index, calendar, docket, register of actions, official record of the proceedings, order, decree, judgment, minute, and any information in a case management system created or prepared by the court that is related to a judicial proceeding. Court record does not include data maintained by or for a judge pertaining to a particular case or party, such as personal notes and communications, memoranda, drafts, or other working papers; or information gathered, maintained, or stored by a government agency or other entity to which the court has access but which is not entered into the record.
(5) “Criminal justice agencies” are government agencies that perform criminal justice functions pursuant to statute or executive order and that allocate a substantial part of their annual budget to those functions.
(6) “Dissemination contract” means an agreement between a court record provider and any person or entity, except a Washington State court (Supreme Court, court of appeals, superior court, district court or municipal court), that is provided court records. The essential elements of a dissemination contract shall be promulgated by the JIS Committee.
(7) “Judicial Information System (JIS) Committee” is the committee with oversight of the statewide judicial information system. The judicial information system is the automated, centralized, statewide information system that serves the state courts.
(8) “Judge” means a judicial officer as defined in the Code of Judicial Conduct (CJC) Application of the Code of Judicial Conduct Section (A).
(9) “Public” includes an individual, partnership, joint venture, public or private corporation, association, federal, state, or local governmental entity or agency, however constituted, or any other organization or group of persons, however organized.
(10) “Public purpose agency” means governmental agencies included in the definition of “agency” in RCW 42.17.020 and other non-profit organizations whose principal function is to provide services to the public.
(1) The public shall have access to all court records except as restricted by federal law, state law, court except as restricted by federal law, state law, court rule, court order, or case law.
(2) Each court by action of a majority of the judges may from time to time make and amend local rules governing access to court records not inconsistent with this rule.
(3) A fee may not be charged to view court records at the courthouse.
(e) Personal Identifiers Omitted or Redacted from Court Records
(1) Except as otherwise provided in GR 22, parties shall not include, and if present shall redact, the following personal identifiers from all documents filed with the court, whether filed electronically or in paper, unless necessary or otherwise ordered by the Court.
(A) Social Security Numbers. If the Social Security Number of an individual must be included in a document, only the last four digits of that number shall be used.
(B) Financial Account Numbers. If financial account numbers are relevant, only the last four digits shall be recited in the document.
(C) Driver’s License Numbers
(2) The responsibility for redacting these personal identifiers rests solely with counsel and the parties. The Court or the Clerk will not review each pleading for compliance with this rule. If a pleading is filed without redaction, the opposing party or identified person may move the Court to order redaction. The court may award the prevailing party reasonable expenses, including attorney fees and court costs, incurred in making or opposing the motion.
COMMENT This rule does not require any party, attorney, clerk, or judicial officer to redact information from a court record that was filed prior to the adoption of this rule.
(f) Distribution of Court Records Not Publicly Accessible
(1) A public purpose agency may request court records not publicly accessible for scholarly, governmental, or research purposes where the identification of specific individuals is ancillary to the purpose of the inquiry. In order to grant such requests, the court or the Administrator for the Courts must:
(i) the extent to which access will result in efficiencies in the operation of the judiciary;
(ii) the extent to which access will fulfill a legislative mandate;
(iii) the extent to which access will result in efficiencies in other parts of the justice system; and
(iv) the risks created by permitting the access.
(B) Determine, in its discretion, that filling the request will not violate this rule.
(C) Determine the minimum access to restricted court records necessary for the purpose is provided to the requestor.
(D) Assure that prior to the release of court records under section (f) (1), the requestor has executed a dissemination contract that includes terms and conditions which:
(i) require the requester to specify provisions for the secure protection of any data that is confidential;
(ii) prohibit the disclosure of data in any form which identifies an individual;
(iii) prohibit the copying, duplication, or dissemination of information or data provided other than for the stated purpose; and
(iv) maintain a log of any distribution of court records which will be open and available for audit by the court or the Administrator of the Courts. Any audit should verify that the court records are being appropriately used and in a manner consistent with this rule.
(2) Courts, court employees, clerks and clerk employees, and the Commission on Judicial Conduct may access and use court records only for the purpose of conducting official court business.
(3) Criminal justice agencies may request court records not publicly accessible.
(A) The provider of court records shall approve the access level and permitted use for classes of criminal justice agencies including, but not limited to, law enforcement, prosecutors, and corrections. An agency that is not included in a class may request access.
(B) Agencies requesting access under this section of the rule shall identify the court records requested and the proposed use for the court records.
(C) Access by criminal justice agencies shall be governed by a dissemination contract. The contract shall:
(i) specify the data to which access is granted;
(ii) specify the uses which the agency will make of the data; and
(iii) include the agency’s agreement that its employees will access the data only for the uses specified.
(g) Bulk Distribution of Court Records
(1) A dissemination contract and disclaimer approved by the JIS Committee for JIS records or a dissemination contract and disclaimer approved by the court clerk for local records must accompany all bulk distribution of court records.
(2) A request for bulk distribution of court records may be denied if providing the information will create an undue burden on court or court clerk operations because of the amount of equipment, materials, staff time, computer time or other resources required to satisfy the request.
(3) The use of court records, distributed in bulk form, for the purpose of commercial solicitation of individuals named in the court records is prohibited.
(h) Appeals. Appeals of denials of access to JIS records maintained at state level shall be governed by the rules and policies established by the JIS Committee.
(i) Notice. The Administrator for the Courts shall develop a method to notify the public of access to court records and the restrictions on access.
(j) Access to Juror Information. Individual juror information, other than name, is presumed to be private. After the conclusion of a jury trial, the attorney for a party, or party pro se, or member of the public, may petition the trial court for access to individual juror information under the control of court. Upon a showing of good cause, the court may permit the petitioner to have access to relevant information. The court may require that juror information not be disclosed to other persons.
(k) Access to Master Jury Source List. Master jury source list information, other than name and address, is presumed to be private. Upon a showing of good cause, the court may permit a petitioner to have access to relevant information from the list. The court may require that the information not be disclosed to other persons.
[Adopted effective October 26, 2004; amended effective January 3, 2006.]
ACCESS TO ADMINISTRATIVE RECORDS
(a) Policy and Purpose. Consistent with the principles of open administration of justice as provided in article I, section 10 of the Washington State Constitution, it is the policy of the judiciary to facilitate access to administrative records. A presumption of access applies to the judiciary’s administrative records. Access to administrative records, however, is not absolute and shall be consistent with exemptions for personal privacy, restrictions in statutes, restrictions in court rules, and as required for the integrity of judicial decision-making. Access shall not unduly burden the business of the judiciary.
(b) Overview of Public Access to Judicial Records. There are three categories of judicial records.
(1) Case records are records that relate to in-court proceedings, including case files, dockets, calendars, and the like. Public access to these records is governed by GR 31, which refers to these records as “court records,” and not by this GR 31.1. Under GR 31, these records are presumptively open to public access, subject to stated exceptions.
(2) Administrative records are records that relate to the management, supervision, or administration of a court or judicial agency. A more specific definition of “administrative records” is in section (i) of this rule. Under section (j) of this rule, administrative records are presumptively open to public access, subject to exceptions found in sections (j) and (l) of this rule.
(3) Chambers records are records that are controlled and maintained by a judge’s chambers. A more specific definition of this term is in section (m) of this rule. Under section (m), chambers records are not open to public access.
PROCEDURES FOR ADMINISTRATIVE RECORDS
(c) Procedures for Records Requests.
(1) COURTS AND JUDICIAL AGENCIES TO ADOPT PROCEDURES. Each court and judicial agency must adopt a policy implementing this rule and setting forth its procedures for accepting and responding to administrative records requests. The policy must include the designation of a public records officer and shall require that requests from the identified individual or, if an entity, an identified entity representative, be submitted in writing to the designated public records officer. Best practices for handling administrative records requests shall be developed under the authority of the Board for Judicial Administration.
COMMENT: When adopting policies and procedures, courts and judicial agencies will need to carefully consider many issues, including the extent to which judicial employees may use personally owned computers and other media devices to conduct official business and the extent to which the court or agency will rely on the individual employee to search his or her personally owned media devices for documents in response to a records request. For judicial officers and their chambers staff, documents on personal media devices may still qualify as chambers records, see section (m) of this rule.
(2) PUBLICATION OF PROCEDURES FOR REQUESTING ADMINISTRATIVE RECORDS. Each court and judicial agency must prominently publish the procedures for requesting access to its administrative records. If the court or judicial agency has a website, the procedures must be included there. The publication shall include the public records officer’s work mailing address, telephone number, fax number, and e-mail address.
(3) INITIAL RESPONSE. Each court and judicial agency must initially respond to a written request for access to an administrative record within five working days of its receipt, but for courts that convene infrequently no more than 30 calendar days, from the date of its receipt. The response shall acknowledge receipt of the request and include a good-faith estimate of the time needed to respond to the request. The estimate may be later revised, if necessary. For purposes of this rule, “working days” mean days that the court or judicial agency, including a part-time municipal court, is open.
(4) COMMUNICATION WITH REQUESTER. Each court and judicial agency must communicate with the requester as necessary to clarify the records being requested. The court or judicial agency may also communicate with the requester in an effort to determine if the requester’s need would be better served with a response other than the one actually requested.
(5) SUBSTANTIVE RESPONSE. Each court and judicial agency must respond to the substance of the records request within the timeframe specified in the court’s or judicial agency’s initial response to the request. If the court or judicial agency is unable to fully comply in this timeframe, then the court or judicial agency should comply to the extent practicable and provide a new good faith estimate for responding to the remainder of the request. If the court or judicial agency does not fully satisfy the records request in the manner requested, the court or judicial agency must justify in writing any deviation from the terms of the request.
(6) EXTRAORDINARY REQUESTS LIMITED BY RESOURCE CONSTRAINTS. If a particular request is of a magnitude that the court or judicial agency cannot fully comply within a reasonable time due to constraints on the court’s or judicial agency’s time, resources, and personnel, the court or judicial agency shall communicate this information to the requester. The court or judicial agency must attempt to reach agreement with the requester as to narrowing the request to a more manageable scope and as to a timeframe for the court’s or judicial agency’s response, which may include a schedule of installment responses. If the court or judicial agency and requester are unable to reach agreement, then the court or judicial agency shall respond to the extent practicable and inform the requester that the court or judicial agency has completed its response.
(7) RECORDS REQUESTS THAT INVOLVE HARASSMENT, INTIMIDATION, THREATS TO SECURITY, OR CRIMINAL ACTIVITY. A court or judicial agency may deny a records request if it determines that: the request was made to harass or intimidate the court or judicial agency or its employees; fulfilling the request would likely threaten the security of the court or judicial agency; fulfilling the request would likely threaten the safety or security of judicial officers, staff, family members of judicial officers or staff, or any other person; or fulfilling the request may assist criminal activity.
(d) Review of Records Decision.
(1) NOTICE OF REVIEW PROCEDURES. The public records officer’s response to a public records request shall include a written summary of the procedures under which the requesting party may seek further review.
(2) DEADLINE FOR SEEKING INTERNAL REVIEW. A record requester’s petition under section (d)(3) seeking internal review of a public records officer’s decision must be submitted within 90 days of the public records officer’s decision.
(3) INTERNAL REVIEW WITHIN COURT OR AGENCY. Each court and judicial agency shall provide a method for review by the judicial agency’s director, presiding judge, or judge designated by the presiding judge. For a judicial agency, the presiding judge shall be the presiding judge of the court that oversees the agency. The court or judicial agency may also establish intermediate levels of review. The court or judicial agency shall make publicly available the applicable forms. The review proceeding is informal and summary. The review proceeding shall be held within five working days, but for courts that convene infrequently no more than 30 calendar days, from the date the court or agency receives the request for review. If that is not reasonably possible, then within five working days the review shall be scheduled for the earliest practical date.
(4) EXTERNAL REVIEW. Upon the exhaustion of remedies under section (d)(3), a record requester aggrieved by a court or agency decision may obtain further review by choosing between the two alternatives set forth in subsections (i) and (ii) of this section (d)(4).
(i) REVIEW VIA CIVIL ACTION IN COURT. The requesting person may use a judicial writ of mandamus, prohibition, or certiorari to file a civil action in superior court challenging the records decision.
COMMENT: Subsection (i) does not create any new judicial remedies, but merely recognizes existing procedures for initiating a civil action in court.
(ii) INFORMAL REVIEW BY VISITING JUDGE OR OTHER OUTSIDE DECISION MAKER. The requesting person may seek informal review by a person outside the court or judicial agency. If the requesting person seeks review of a decision made by a court or made by a judicial agency that is directly reportable to a court, the outside review shall be by a visiting judicial officer. If the requesting person seeks review of a decision made by a judicial agency that is not directly reportable to a court, the outside review shall be by a person agreed upon by the requesting person and the judicial agency. In the event the requesting person and the judicial agency cannot agree upon a person, the presiding superior court judge in the county in which the judicial agency is located shall either conduct the review or appoint a person to conduct the review. The review proceeding shall be informal and summary. The decision resulting from the informal review proceeding may be further reviewed in superior court pursuant to a writ of mandamus, prohibition, or certiorari. Decisions made by a judge under this subsection (ii) are part of the judicial function.
(iii) DEADLINE FOR SEEKING EXTERNAL REVIEW. A request for external review must be submitted within 30 days of the issuance of the court or judicial agency’s final decision under section (d)(3).
(e) Monetary Awards Not Allowed. Attorney fees, costs, civil penalties, or fines may not be awarded under this rule.
(f) Persons Who Are Subjects of Records.
(1) Unless otherwise required or prohibited by law, a court or judicial agency has the option of notifying a person named in a record or to whom a record specifically pertains, that access to the record has been requested.
(2) A person who is named in a record, or to whom a record specifically pertains, may present information opposing the disclosure to the applicable decision maker under sections (c) and (d).
(3) If a court or judicial agency decides to allow access to a requested record, a person who is named in that record, or to whom the record specifically pertains, has a right to initiate review under subsections (d)(3)-(4) or to participate as a party to any review initiated by a requester under subsections (d)(3)-(4). If either the record subject or the record requester objects to informal review under subsection (d)(4)(ii), such alternative shall not be available. The deadlines that apply to a requester apply as well to a person who is a subject of a record.
(g) Court and Judicial Agency Rules. Each court may from time to time make and amend local rules governing access to administrative records not inconsistent with this rule. Each judicial agency may from time to time make and amend agency rules governing access to its administrative records not inconsistent with this rule.
(h) Charging of Fees.
(1) A fee may not be charged to view administrative records, except the requester may be charged for research required to locate, obtain, or prepare the records at the rate set forth in section (h)(4).
(2) A fee may be charged for the photocopying or scanning of administrative records. If another court rule or statute specifies the amount of the fee for a particular type of record, that rule or statute shall control. Otherwise, the amount of the fee may not exceed the amount that is authorized in the Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW.
(3) The court or judicial agency may require a deposit in an amount not to exceed the estimated cost of providing copies for a request. If a court or judicial agency makes a request available on a partial or installment basis, the court or judicial agency may charge for each part of the request as it is provided. If an installment of a records request is not claimed or reviewed within 30 days, the court or judicial agency is not obligated to fulfill the balance of the request.
(4) A fee not to exceed $30 per hour may be charged for research and preparation services required to fulfill a request taking longer than one hour. The fee shall be assessed from the second hour onward.
COMMENT: The authority to charge for research services is discretionary, allowing courts to balance the competing interests between recovering the costs of their response and ensuring the open administration of justice. The fee should not exceed the actual costs of response.
(5) A court or judicial agency may require prepayment of fees.
APPLICATION OF RULE FOR ADMINISTRATIVE RECORDS
This rule applies to all administrative records, regardless of the physical form of the record, the method of recording the record, or the method of storage of the record.
(1) “Access” means the ability to view or obtain a copy of an administrative record.
(2) “Administrative record” means a public record created by or maintained by a court or judicial agency and related to the management, supervision, or administration of the court or judicial agency.
COMMENT: The term “administrative record” does not include any of the following: (1) “court records” as defined in GR 31; (2) chambers records as set forth later in this rule; or (3) an attorney’s client files that would otherwise be covered by the attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product privilege.
(3) “Court record” is defined in GR 31.
(4) “Judge” means a judicial officer as defined in the Code of Judicial Conduct (CJC) Application of the Code of Judicial Conduct Section (A).
(5) “Public” includes an individual, partnership, joint venture, public or private corporation, association, federal, state, or local governmental entity or agency, however constituted, or any other organization or group of persons, however organized.
(6) “Public record” includes any writing, except chambers records and court records, containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used, or retained by any court or judicial agency regardless of physical form or characteristics. “Public record” also includes metadata for electronic administrative records.
COMMENT: See O’Neill v. City of Shoreline, 170 Wn.2d 138, 240 P.3d 1149 (2010) (defining “metadata”).
(7) “Writing” means handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, and every other means of recording any form of communication or representation including, but not limited to, letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combination thereof, and all papers, maps, magnetic or paper tapes, photographic films and prints, motion picture, film and video recordings, magnetic or punched cards, discs, drums, diskettes, sound recordings, and other documents including existing data compilations from which information may be obtained or translated.
COMMENT: E-mails and telephone records are included in this broad definition of “writing.”
(j) Administrative Records—General Right of Access. Court and judicial agency administrative records are open to public access unless access is exempted or prohibited under this rule, other court rules, federal statutes, state statutes, court orders, or case law. To the extent that records access would be exempt or prohibited if the Public Records Act applied to the judiciary’s administrative records, access is also exempt or prohibited under this rule. To the extent that an ambiguity exists as to whether records access would be exempt or prohibited under this rule or other enumerated sources, responders and reviewing authorities shall be guided by the Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW, in making interpretations under this rule. In addition, to the extent required to prevent a significant risk to individual privacy or safety interests, a court or judicial agency shall delete identifying details in a manner consistent with this rule when it makes available or publishes any public record; however, in each instance, the justification for the deletion shall be provided fully in writing.
(k) Entities Subject to Rule.
(1) This rule applies to the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the superior courts, the district and municipal courts, and the following judicial agencies:
(i) All judicial organizations that are overseen by a court, including entities that are designated as agencies, departments, committees, boards, commissions, task forces, and similar groups;
(ii) The Superior Court Judges’ Association, the District and Municipal Court Judges’ Association, and similar associations of judicial officers and employees
(iii) The Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid and the Washington State Office of Public Defense; and
(iv) All subgroups of the entities listed in this section (k)(1).
COMMENT: The elected court clerks and their staff are not included in this rule because (1) they are covered by the Public Records Act and (2) they do not generally maintain the judiciary’s administrative records that are covered by this rule.
(2) This rule does not apply to the Washington State Bar Association. Public access to the Bar Association’s records is governed by [a proposed General Rule 12.4, pending before the Supreme Court].
(3) A judicial officer is not a court or judicial agency.
COMMENT: This provision protects judges and court commissioners from having to respond personally to public records requests. Records requests would instead go to the court’s public records officer.
(4) An attorney or entity appointed by a court or judicial agency to provide legal representation to a litigant in a judicial or administrative proceeding does not become a judicial agency by virtue of that appointment.
(5) A person or entity entrusted by a judicial officer, court, or judicial agency with the storage and maintenance of its public records, whether part of a judicial agency or a third party, is not a judicial agency. Such person or agency may not respond to a request for access to administrative records, absent express written authority from the court or judicial agency or separate authority in court rule to grant access to the documents.
COMMENT: Judicial e-mails and other documents sometimes reside on IT servers, some are in off-site physical storage facilities. This provision prohibits an entity that operates the IT server from disclosing judicial records. The entity is merely a bailee, holding the records on behalf of a court or judicial agency, rather than an owner of the records having independent authority to release them. Similarly, if a court or judicial agency puts its paper records in storage with another entity, the other entity cannot disclose the records. In either instance, it is the court or judicial agency that needs to make the decision as to releasing the records. The records request needs to be addressed by the court’s or judicial agency’s public records officer, not by the person or entity having control over the IT server or the storage area. On the other hand, if a court or judicial agency archives its records with the state archivist, relinquishing by contract its own authority as to disposition of the records, the archivist would have separate authority to disclose the records.
Because of this rule’s broad definition of “public record”, this paragraph (6) would apply to electronic records, such as e-mails (and their metadata) and telephone records, among a wide range of other records.
(l) Exemptions. In addition to exemptions referred to in section (j), the following categories of administrative records are exempt from public access:
(1) Requests for judicial ethics opinions;
(2) Minutes of meetings held exclusively among judges, along with any staff;
COMMENT: Meeting minutes do not always contain information that needs to be withheld from public access. Courts have discretion whether to release meeting minutes, because an exemption from this rule merely means that a document is not required to be disclosed. Disclosure would be appropriate if the document does not contain information of a confidential, sensitive, or protected nature. Courts and judicial agencies are encouraged to carefully consider whether some, or all, of their meeting minutes should be open to public access. Adopting a local rule on this issue would assist the public in knowing which types of minutes are accessible and which are not.
(3) Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended are exempt under this rule, except that a specific record is not exempt when publicly cited by a court or agency in connection with any court or agency action. This exemption applies to a record only while a final decision is pending on the issue that is being addressed in that record; once the final decision has been made, the record is no longer covered by this exemption. For purposes of documents related to budget negotiations with a budgetary authority, the “final decision” is the decision by the budgetary authority to adopt the budget for that year or biennium.
(4) Evaluations and recommendations concerning candidates seeking appointment or employment within a court or judicial agency;
COMMENT: Paragraph (4) is intended to encompass documents such as those of the Supreme Court’s Capital Counsel Committee, which evaluates attorneys for potential inclusion on a list of attorneys who are specially qualified to represent clients in capital cases.
(5) Personal identifying information, including individuals’ home contact information, Social Security numbers, date of birth, driver’s license numbers, and identification/security photographs;
(6) Documents related to an attorney’s request for a trial or appellate court defense expert, investigator, or other services, any report or findings submitted to the attorney or court or judicial agency by the expert, investigator, or other service provider, and the invoicing of the expert, investigator or other service provider during the pendency of the case in any court. Payment records are not exempt, provided that they do not include medical records, attorney work product, information protected by attorney-client privilege, information sealed by a court, or otherwise exempt information;
(7) Documents, records, files, investigative notes and reports, including the complaint and the identity of the complainant, associated with a court’s or judicial agency’s internal investigation of a complaint against the court or judicial agency or its contractors during the course of the investigation. The outcome of the court’s or judicial agency’s investigation is not exempt;
(9) Family court mediation files; and
(10) Juvenile court probation social files.
(11) Those portions of records containing specific and unique vulnerability assessments or specific and unique emergency and escape response plans, the disclosure of which would have a substantial likelihood of threatening the security of a judicial facility or any individual’s safety.
(12) The following records of the Certified Professional Guardian Board:
(i) Investigative records compiled by the Board as a result of an investigation conducted by the Board as part of the application process, while a disciplinary investigation is in process under the Board’s rules and regulations, or as a result of any other investigation conducted by the Board while an investigation is in process. Investigative records related to a grievance become open to public inspection once the investigation is completed.
(ii) Deliberative records compiled by the Board or a panel or committee of the Board as part of a disciplinary process.
(iii) A grievance shall be open to public access, along with any response to the grievance submitted by the professional guardian or agency, once the investigation into the grievance has been completed or once a decision has been made that no investigation will be conducted. The name of the professional guardian or agency shall not be redacted from the grievance.
(m) Chambers Records. Chambers records are not administrative records and are not subject to disclosure.
COMMENT: Access to chambers records could necessitate a judicial officer having to review all records to protect against disclosing case sensitive information or other information that would intrude on the independence of judicial decision-making. This would effectively make the judicial officer a de facto public records officer and could greatly interfere with judicial functions.
(1) “Chambers record” means any writing that is created by or maintained by any judicial officer or chambers staff, and is maintained under chambers control, whether directly related to an official judicial proceeding, the management of the court, or other chambers activities. “Chambers staff” means a judicial officer’s law clerk, a judicial officer’s administrative staff, and any other staff when providing support directly to the judicial officer at chambers.
COMMENT: Some judicial employees, particularly in small jurisdictions, split their time between performing chambers duties and performing other court duties. An employee may be “chambers staff” as to certain functions, but not as to others. Whether certain records are subject to disclosure may depend on whether the employee was acting in a chambers staff function or an administrative staff function with respect to that record.
Records may remain under chambers control even though they are stored elsewhere. For example, records relating to chambers activities that are stored on a judge’s personally owned or workplace-assigned computer, laptop computer, cell phone, and similar electronic devices would still be chambers records. As a further example, records that are stored for a judicial chambers on external servers would still be under chambers control to the same extent as if the records were stored directly within the chambers. However, records that are otherwise subject to disclosure should not be allowed to be moved into chambers control as a means of avoiding disclosure.
(2) Court records and administrative records do not become chambers records merely because they are in the possession or custody of a judicial officer or chambers staff.
COMMENT: Chambers records do not change in character by virtue of being accessible to another chambers. For example, a data base that is shared by multiple judges and their chambers staff is a “chambers record” for purposes of this rule, as long as the data base is only being used by judges and their chambers staff.
IMPLEMENTATION AND EFFECTIVE DATE
(n) Best Practices. Best practice guidelines adopted by the Supreme Court may be relied upon in acting upon public requests for documents.
(o) Effective Date of Rule.
(1) This rule will go into effect on a future date to be determined by the Supreme Court based upon a recommendation from the Board for Judicial Administration. The rule will apply to records that are created on or after that date.
COMMENT: A delayed effective date is being used to allow time for development of best practices, training, and implementation. The effective date will be added to the rule once it has been determined.
(2) Public access to records that are created before that date are to be analyzed according to other court rules, applicable statutes, and the common law balancing test. The Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW, does not apply to judicial records, but it may be used for non-binding guidance.
[Adopted effective January 1, 2016.]
Court processes and procedures are administered through rules created by the Washington State court system. General Rule 15 describes how court records are managed.
General Court Rule 15
Destruction, Sealing and Redaction of Court Records
Purpose and Scope of the Rule: This rule sets forth a uniform procedure for the destruction, sealing, and redaction of court records. This rule applies to all court records, regardless of the physical form of the court record, the method of recording the court record, or the method of storage of the court record.
(1) “Court file” means the pleadings, orders, and other papers filed with the clerk of the court under a single or consolidated cause number(s).
(2) “Court record” is defined in General Rule 31(c)(4).
(3) Destroy: To destroy means to obliterate a court record or file in such a way as to make it permanently irretrievable. A motion or order to expunge shall be treated as a motion or order to destroy.
(4) Seal: To seal means to protect from examination by the public and unauthorized court personnel. A motion or order to delete, purge, remove, excise, or erase, or redact shall be treated as a motion or order to seal.
(5) Redact: To redact means to protect from examination by the public and unauthorized court personnel a portion or portions of a specified court record.
(6) Restricted Personal Identifiers are defined in GR 22(b)(6).
(7) Strike: A motion or order to strike is not a motion or order to seal or destroy.
(8) Vacate: To vacate means to nullify or cancel.
Sealing or Redacting Court Records:
(1) In a civil case, the court or any party may request a hearing to seal or redact the court records. In a criminal case or juvenile proceeding, the court, any party, or any interested person may request a hearing to seal or redact the court records. Reasonable notice of a hearing to seal must be given to all parties in the case. In a criminal case, reasonable notice of a hearing to seal or redact must also be given to the victim, if ascertainable, and the person or agency having probationary, custodial, community placement, or community supervision over the affected adult or juvenile. No such notice is required for motions to seal documents entered pursuant to Court Rule 3.1(f) or CrRLJ 3.1(f).
(2) After the hearing the court may order the court files and records in the proceeding, or any part thereof, to be sealed or redacted if the court makes and enters written findings that the specific sealing or redaction is justified by identified compelling privacy or safety concerns that outweigh the public interest in access to the court record. Agreement of the parties alone does not constitute a sufficient basis for the sealing or redaction of court records. Sufficient privacy or safety concerns that may be weighed against the public interest include findings that:
(A) The sealing or redaction is permitted by statute; or
(B) The sealing or redaction furthers an order entered under CR 12(f) or a protective order entered under Court Rule 26(c); or
(C) A conviction has been vacated; or
(D) The sealing or redaction furthers an order entered pursuant to RCW 4.24.611; or
(E) The redaction includes only restricted personal identifiers contained in the court record; or
(F) Another identified compelling circumstance exists that requires the sealing or redaction.
(3) A court record shall not be sealed under this section when redaction will adequately resolve the issues before the court pursuant to subsection (2) above.
(4) Sealing of Entire Court File: When the clerk receives a court order to seal the entire court file, the clerk shall seal the court file and secure it from public access. All court records filed thereafter shall also be sealed unless otherwise ordered. The existence of a court file sealed in its entirety, unless protected by statute, is available for viewing by the public on court indices. The information on the court indices is limited to the case number, names of the parties, the notation “case sealed,” the case type and cause of action in civil cases and the cause of action or charge in criminal cases, except where the conviction in a criminal case has been vacated, section (d) shall apply. The order to seal and written findings supporting the order to seal shall also remain accessible to the public, unless protected by statute.
(5) Sealing of Specified Court Records: When the clerk receives a court order to seal specified court records the clerk shall:
(A) On the docket, preserve the docket code, document title, document or subdocument number and date of the original court records;
(B) Remove the specified court records, seal them, and return them to the file under seal or store separately. The clerk shall substitute a filler sheet for the removed sealed court record. If the court record ordered sealed exists in a microfilm, microfiche or other storage medium form other than paper, the clerk shall restrict access to the alternate storage medium so as to prevent unauthorized viewing of the sealed court record; and
(C) File the order to seal and the written findings supporting the order to seal. Both shall be accessible to the public.
(D) Before a court file is made available for examination, the clerk shall prevent access to the sealed court records.
(6) Procedures for Redacted Court Records: When a court record is redacted pursuant to a court order, the original court record shall be replaced in the public court file by the redacted copy. The redacted copy shall be provided by the moving party. The original unredacted court record shall be sealed following the procedures set forth in (c)(5).
Procedures for Vacated Criminal Convictions:
In cases where a criminal conviction has been vacated and an order to seal entered, the information in the public court indices shall be limited to the case number, case type with the notification “DV” if the case involved domestic violence, the adult or juvenile’s name, and the notation “vacated.”
Grounds and Procedure for Requesting the Unsealing of Sealed Records:
(1) Sealed court records may be examined by the public only after the court records have been ordered unsealed pursuant to this section or after entry of a court order allowing access to a sealed court record.
(2) Criminal Cases: A sealed court record in a criminal case shall be ordered unsealed only upon proof of compelling circumstances, unless otherwise provided by statute, and only upon motion and written notice to the persons entitled to notice under subsection (c)(1) of this rule except:
(A) If a new criminal charge is filed and the existence of the conviction contained in a sealed record is an element of the new offense, or would constitute a statutory sentencing enhancement, or provide the basis for an exceptional sentence, upon application of the prosecuting attorney the court shall nullify the sealing order in the prior sealed case(s).
(B) If a petition is filed alleging that a person is a sexually violent predator, upon application of the prosecuting attorney the court shall nullify the sealing order as to all prior criminal records of that individual.
(3) Civil Cases: A sealed court record in a civil case shall be ordered unsealed only upon stipulation of all parties or upon motion and written notice to all parties and proof that identified compelling circumstances for continued sealing no longer exist, or pursuant to RCW 4.24 or CR 26(j). If the person seeking access cannot locate a party to provide the notice required by this rule, after making a good faith reasonable effort to provide such notice as required by the Superior Court Rules, an affidavit may be filed with the court setting forth the efforts to locate the party and requesting waiver of the notice provision of this rule. The court may waive the notice requirement of this rule if the court finds that further good faith efforts to locate the party are not likely to be successful.
(4) Juvenile Proceedings: Inspection of a sealed juvenile court record is permitted only by order of the court upon motion made by the person who is the subject of the record, except as otherwise provided in RCW 13.50.010(8) and 13.50.050(23). Any adjudication of a juvenile offense or a crime subsequent to sealing has the effect of nullifying the sealing order, pursuant to RCW 13.50.050(16).
Maintenance of Sealed Court Records:
Sealed court records are subject to the provisions of RCW 36.23.065 and can be maintained in mediums other than paper.
Use of Sealed Records on Appeal:
A court record or any portion of it, sealed in the trial court shall be made available to the appellate court in the event of an appeal. Court records sealed in the trial court shall be sealed from public access in the appellate court subject to further order of the appellate court.
Destruction of Court Records:
(1) The court shall not order the destruction of any court record unless expressly permitted by statute. The court shall enter written findings that cite the statutory authority for the destruction of the court record.
(2) In a civil case, the court or any party may request a hearing to destroy court records only if there is express statutory authority permitting the destruction of the court records. In a criminal case or juvenile proceeding, the court, any party, or any interested person may request a hearing to destroy the court records only if there is express statutory authority permitting the destruction of the court records. Reasonable notice of the hearing to destroy must be given to all parties in the case. In a criminal case, reasonable notice of the hearing must also be given to the victim, if ascertainable, and the person or agency having probationary, custodial, community placement, or community supervision over the affected adult or juvenile.
(3) When the clerk receives a court order to destroy the entire court file the clerk shall:
(A) Remove all references to the court records from any applicable information systems maintained for or by the clerk except for accounting records, the order to destroy, and the written findings. The order to destroy and the supporting written findings shall be filed and available for viewing by the public.
(B) The accounting records shall be sealed.
(4) When the clerk receives a court order to destroy specified court records the clerk shall:
(A) On the automated docket, destroy any docket code information except any document or sub-document number previously assigned to the court record destroyed, and enter “Order Destroyed” for the docket entry;
(B) Destroy the appropriate court records, substituting, when applicable, a printed or other reference to the order to destroy, including the date, location, and document number of the order to destroy; and
(C) File the order to destroy and the written findings supporting the order to destroy. Both the order and the findings shall be publicly accessible.
(5) This subsection shall not prevent the routine destruction of court records pursuant to applicable preservation and retention schedules.
Notwithstanding any other provision of this rule, trial exhibits may be destroyed or returned to the parties if all parties so stipulate in writing and the court so orders.
Effect on Other Statutes:
Nothing in this rule is intended to restrict or to expand the authority of clerks under existing statutes, nor is anything in this rule intended to restrict or expand the authority of any public auditor, or the Commission on Judicial Conduct in the exercise of duties conferred by statute.
[Adopted effective September 22, 1989; amended effective September 1, 1995; June 4, 1997; June 16, 1998; September 1, 2000; October 1, 2002; July 1, 2006; April 28, 2015.]
Accessing Washington’s Courts
Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Opinions:
The Courts of Washington State:
Municipal Courts of Washington:
Superior Courts of Washington:
District Courts of Washington:
District court rules including access:
Washington State Courts
Public Trust and Confidence Committee
To achieve the highest possible level of public trust and confidence in the Washington judicial system.
To assess the public’s level of trust and confidence in the Washington judicial system and to develop strategies to increase that trust and confidence.
To catalog potential and current activities promoting public trust and confidence in the judicial system.
To identify areas where public trust and confidence is lacking and to prioritize these needs for consideration by the committee.
To develop and disseminate tools and resources to address those needs.
To encourage and monitor use of tools and resources developed by the committee.
To collaborate with other individuals and groups working to improve public trust and confidence.