Reporters at The Seattle Times kept saying the same thing: I’m writing about this person, or that company, or this public agency, and some judge won’t let me see court records that I need. Some lawsuit goes right to the heart of my story, but I can’t read the file—or at least not the parts that matter.

Hear that enough, and it’s time to ask, “What’s going on here?”

That’s what Justin Mayo and I did. But getting the answer took lots of time and money.

We could have gone broad—writing about sealed records on a national level, pulling anecdotes from hither and yon. Or we could have gone local—trying to find every sealed lawsuit in King County Superior Court; recording every plaintiff, defendant and judge, and pulling every sealing order to see the reasons provided for secrecy and whether the law was followed.

National offered scale. Local offered depth. We decided to go local.

Files sealed by the King County Superior Court are stored out of public view in a locked room at the courthouse. Photo by Mark Harrison.
The clerk’s office in King County didn’t keep a list of sealed cases. So Justin, a specialist in computer-assisted reporting, figured out a way to search the court system’s massive database of electronic dockets, looking for codes or key words that suggested a lawsuit might be sealed. I took the thousands of civil suits that Justin’s searches kicked up and entered each case number into the computer at the clerk’s office. If a case was sealed, a box popped up, denying access.

We found other ways to supplement that search and, in the end, found 420 civil cases that had been sealed in their entirety. In these cases members of the public couldn’t even read the complaint to see what the dispute involved. But we had learned the defendants in these cases included public agencies; lawyers and judges; prominent business figures; doctors and hospitals, and the manufacturers of widely used products. We discovered also that almost all of these cases had been sealed illegally, with litigants and judges ignoring Washington’s strict laws restricting such secrecy.

This is when our newspaper’s commitment really came through. We could have gone to press with a story saying hundreds of lawsuits had been improperly sealed—and leaving readers to speculate what was in those files. Or we could have gone to court to fight and have them opened.

We decided to go to court. We filed motions in 40 cases—and got 37 lawsuits unsealed. The newspaper’s legal costs exceeded $200,000. That was the price of public access—a price The Seattle Times was willing to pay.

Revealing What Had Been Secret

“Your Courts, Their Secrets”
With the help of Steve Miletich and other reporters, we wrote more than a dozen stories, which appeared under the headline, “Your Courts, Their Secrets,” about the contents of previously sealed files. One lawsuit accused a judge of committing legal malpractice in one of the last cases he tried before joining the bench. In another lawsuit, a respiratory therapist was charged with using a wrong adapter so that oxygen was forced into a newborn, with no way out. That one was settled for $7.8 million, a record for birth-injury cases in Washington.

Among the other sealed cases we found were these:

  • One lawsuit disclosed how a 13-year-old girl came to be raped while in the state’s care. That case had been sealed upon a motion arguing that the file’s contents could embarrass the state and the caregiver it had hired to protect troubled kids.
  • In another case, four principals were accused of allowing an elementary-school teacher to fondle girls. Three families sued. The school district settled—but secretly. The agreement ordered documents destroyed, computer records purged, and court records sealed. The secrecy agreement silenced the victims and even restricted what they could tell any therapist. After we wrote about this lawsuit, one of the principals named in the case was investigated by his new school and wound up resigning.
  • The family of a diabetic woman who suffered permanent brain damage accused Medtronic Inc., a manufacturer, of selling an unsafe insulin pump and the University of Washington Medical Center of medical malpractice. The file was sealed in 2003, concealing concerns about the pump and how Medtronic had not reported the case to federal regulators. The medical center, a public entity, settled its part of the lawsuit for $3.2 million—but on condition the plaintiffs not tell anyone, including the media, how much the university paid or why.

This story in the series, "Failure by state, caregiver kept secret in child-rape case," won a 2007 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.
When we began writing about these cases, the judges in King County took note. Counting civil, divorce and guardianship cases, the judges had sealed at least 1,378 files between 1990 and 2005. Since our stories began being published, not one file has been secreted away.

Readers also responded. We received more than 700 e-mails from readers, with most expressing outrage that the files had ever been hidden from the public in the first place.

Local Investigative Reporting

With investigative reporting, the temptation is always there to go big, to go broad. But too often, we elevate the national and international at the expense of the local. Wanting novelty and sweep, we strive to distinguish ourselves from some newspaper 2,000 miles away rather than concentrating on what our hometown readers most need to know. Project ideas tend to get rejected on the flimsiest of grounds. “The Washington Post (or the St. Pete Times, or the Raleigh News & Observer, or The Wall Street Journal) has already written about incompetent teachers (or abusive cops, or polluted waters, or breakdowns in the foster care system),” an editor or reporter will say.

Well, so what? If the problem exists in your town—and it’s the kind of problem that exposure can help solve—then, chances are, your readers want to know about it. They don’t care if the same thing has been written about somewhere else.

The Washington Post did a terrific series on sealed court records in the late 1980’s. But all that says to me is that courthouse secrecy is an ingrained problem. The more deep-rooted some problem is, the greater the need for lots of papers to dig it out.

After we published our stories on sealed court records in King County, Washington, the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote a series of stories on sealed records in Clark County, Nevada. The Review-Journal did its local take on what is a national problem—and the stories were outstanding.

I’ve worked at papers big, small and in-between, and worked on projects that could be categorized as national, regional or local. The local stories are the toughest. They matter more to readers—including, perhaps, your neighbors, or other parents at your kids’ school, or even your loving spouse. They get picked over more. Objections can mount. Feelings get hurt.

The conventional wisdom seems to say that the more expansive the story, the greater its degree of difficulty. But to me, the challenges—and the potential benefits—become even greater as the issue strikes closer to home.

Ken Armstrong, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter at The Seattle Times. His series of stories, “Your Courts, Their Secrets,” won the Distinguished Writing Award for Local Accountability Reporting from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2007, a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the National Headliner Award for Public Service.

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