Records Requests for Judicial Records
May 6, 2016
Category: Public Records Act
It’s been about four months since the new court rule governing administrative judicial records, GR 31.1, became effective, so I think that the time has definitely come for a quick refresher on the law governing records requests for judicial records.
Think about this scenario: a private citizen submits a public records request to a city for the minutes from every meeting held between the city’s municipal court judges in the last five months. As someone who often works with the Public Records Act (PRA), my first thought—and perhaps yours—would be that meeting minutes are not categorically exempt from disclosure under the PRA and would therefore probably need to be disclosed if requested.
But what if I told you that the minutes are, in fact, categorically exempt from disclosure?
The key to this scenario is recognizing that the minutes of meetings between judges are “judicial records” and that the disclosure of judicial records is not governed by the PRA. Instead, three court rules promulgated by the Washington Supreme Court—GR 22, GR 31, and GR 31.1—govern public access to judicial records, and GR 31.1(l)(2) categorically exempts the “minutes of meetings held exclusively among judges” from “public access.”
Wait, why doesn’t the PRA apply again?
In City of Federal Way v. Koenig, the Washington Supreme Court determined that the PRA does not apply to “judicial records,” because the judiciary is not a “state or local agency” within the meaning of the PRA. Instead, the extent to which the public has access to judicial records is governed by the court rules that are adopted by the Washington Supreme Court.
So when is a record a “judicial record” then?
GR 31.1 specifies three categories of judicial records: (1) administrative records; (2) case records; and (3) chambers records. If a requested record falls into one of these categories, the disclosure of that record is then governed by a court rule and not by the PRA.
Here’s a general overview of each category of judicial record:
1. Administrative Records
Administrative records are records created or maintained by a court or judicial agency that relate to the management, supervision, or administration of the court or judicial agency, not including case records and chambers records. Disclosure of administrative records is governed by GR 31.1, and the public has a right to access administrative records unless an exemption or prohibition on disclosure applies.
Under GR 31.1(m), each court must adopt procedures for accepting and responding to requests for administrative records, and must designate a public records officer (PRO) to handle such requests.
In addition, GR 31.1 contains some unique provisions that substantially differ from those of the PRA, including the following:
- Attorney fees, costs, civil penalties, and fines cannot be awarded for a failure to disclose an administrative record.
- A court or judicial agency may require a deposit in the amount of the total estimated cost of providing copies for a request.
- GR 31.1 incorporates all of the exemptions to the PRA by reference and provides a number of unique exemptions for certain judicial records.
- A court or judicial agency may charge a fee of up to $30 per hour for the research and preparation services required to fulfill a request taking longer than one hour (the fee may be charged from the second hour onward).
2. Case Records
Case records (a.k.a. “court records”) are records that relate to in-court proceedings, including case files, dockets, calendars, exhibits, and other records maintained by a court in connection with a judicial proceeding. Public access to case records is governed generally by GR 31, under which these records are presumptively open to public access, subject to several exemptions. However, public access to family law and guardianship case records is governed by GR 22. Under GR 31(d)(2), each court is given discretion to create its own procedure for responding to requests for case records.
3. Chambers Records
Unlike case and administrative records, chambers records are not subject to any form of public access. Under GR 31.1(m), chambers records are any writings created or maintained by a judicial officer or chambers staff that are maintained under chambers control. “Chambers staff” include a judicial officer’s law clerks, administrative staff, and any other staff providing direct support to a judicial officer at chambers.
Note, however, that court records and administrative records do not become chambers records simply because they are in the possession of a judicial officer or chambers staff.
Responding to a request for judicial records
If a city or county receives a request for certain judicial records, I think that the request should be forwarded to the PRO designated by the court to handle such requests. That PRO should then respond in accordance with the procedures adopted by the relevant court.
Have a question or comment about this information? Let me know below or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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