In a perplexing piece of logic, the Pierce County Superior Court presiding judge decided that audio recordings of an open trial, recorded by court-employed reporters, aren’t public records. The state Supreme Court must overturn Judge Philip K. Sorensen’s convoluted stand in the name of keeping the workings of Washington’s courts fully accessible to the public.
The high court has the direct power to compel Sorensen to open access to the recordings as a public official, and should do so to bring an end to this blockage of transparency.
They contain courtroom audio from a trial in which King County was ordered to pay a former public defender damages after a client stalked her. The trial was held in Pierce County because King County was being sued. The jury in November awarded former public defender Sheila LaRose $7 million in damages, plus $4.9 million in attorney fees and costs.
King County wants the audio recordings to be available for its appeal. But stenographers made those recordings on personal devices only as backups for their transcription process, and Sorensen has refused to consider them disclosable court records. If allowed to stand, this would show court officials how to end-run transparency standards at will, in a way earlier rulings from the Supreme Court explicitly disallowed for public agencies.
King County wants the recordings to help prove that Superior Court Judge Stanley J. Rumbaugh, who presided over the trial, biased the jury against the county’s attorney, Patty Eakes, with a transparently negative attitude and what Eakes called “astonishing conduct.”
If there was perceived hostility from the bench toward the lawyer, the appeals court ought to have the fullest context available to decide whether it biased the jury against the county. Yet the denial of access in Pierce County blocks the path to an open hearing over whether its judge played fair.
Sorensen denied access to the recordings because they were made on the court reporters’ personal devices, but that should not matter. These were court employees doing their official jobs. What they produced along the way should be open regardless of device ownership, a principle stated in the Washington Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that text messages on the Pierce County prosecutor’s personal cellphone are public records if the messages were part of official business.
That decision quoted a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that “If government employees could circumvent the PRA (Public Records Act) by using their home computers for government business, the PRA could be drastically undermined.” Both decisions were correct. The courts should hew closely to this definition of government openness for their own workings in the name of public transparency and credibility.
The recordings should become part of the case record. Blocking access to them on a technicality over who paid for the device used casts a troubling shadow over the courts’ idea of openness. The Supreme Court should cast light on this situation and reject Judge Sorensen’s stand against openness.