The Washington Supreme Court has put a hold on rules changes to the juvenile records system that threatened public accountability and introduced confusion in the lower courts.
The high court sensibly pulled back after outcry by court officers, law enforcement officials and open government advocates urging them to reconsider. The rules changes must now be scrapped and the high court should partner with these groups to adopt meaningful reform that protects juvenile offenders while safeguarding the public’s right to know.
The justices’ reconsideration was the right thing to do. But, clearly these court system leaders failed to consider carefully the crucial and practical implications of such a sweeping systemic change. Worse, despite repeated entreaties from judges, clerks and other court officials, they remained quiet for weeks. That failed response showed a troubling disregard for the concerns of other public officials.
Further, competing orders, one signed by the chief justice alone and the other by the majority of his colleagues, suggest the elected justices have drawn different lessons from what happened.
Set to take effect May 3, the changes would have removed juvenile files from public online court records systems and required that juvenile offenders be identified only by their initials and date of birth. The amendments, approved by the justices on March 31, were proposed by the Washington State Office of Public Defense and the Minority and Justice Commission.
The intention behind the proposals is sound: help put a young person’s early mistakes behind them and allow them to live their lives free of the stigma of a juvenile record. This would be particularly beneficial to youth of color, who are disproportionately impacted by a lack of equity in the judicial system.
However, making it harder to access juvenile records before they are sealed is in clear opposition to the state Constitution’s guarantee that justice in all cases must be administered openly. It would also shield the adults involved in the justice system — including judges, public defenders, prosecutors and police — from vital public scrutiny.
In a recent Seattle Times Op-Ed, Chief Justice Steven González stressed that court files will remain available at the courthouse in the county where the case was conducted and that courtrooms are open to the public.
He is right, but this ignores the burden on those who cannot physically visit a courthouse during business hours, effectively hindering many with disabilities or with limited resources. Even for those who access the records in person, the change to identifying juveniles by initials would only make most searches difficult and the results uncertain.
Using initials would also interfere with the job of county clerks across the state and obstruct the sharing of information with other agencies in the judicial system, which may hurt public safety. For example, sex offender registration, revocation and restoration of firearm rights, driver’s license revocation and warrants currently rely on an individual’s full name, officials said.
Aside from the affront to transparency, the high court’s efforts to wave a magic gavel and change the system also crashed into the reality of adopting such broad changes without consulting those who would carry them out.
In a letter to the Judicial Information Services Committee, State Court Administrator Dawn Marie Rubio pointed out the difficulties of implementing the new rules and made it clear it would be impossible to do so by May 3.
Changes to one of the online case access systems would require more than 200 hours of programming time, Rubio wrote, a task exacerbated by other priorities and continued staffing and recruitment challenges. The only way to comply with the court would be to disable the system temporarily, but doing so would impact many attorneys, prosecutors and public defenders.
Only using a juvenile’s initials would also run into additional tech issues and would “require an agreement or mandate for specific process changes in every clerk’s office and concurrence of 39 county prosecutors’ offices,” she said.
After discussion last week, the justices agreed that the issue would be referred to the Supreme Court Rules Committee “to recommend next steps.” However, there are conflicting versions of what they decided beyond that.
In a May 5 order signed “for the court,” Chief Justice González indicates the rules changes are “delayed pending further order.” In a May 6 dissent signed by the majority of the nine-member court — justices Barbara Madsen, Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Debra Stephens and Helen Whitener — the amendments are “suspended” pending further action by the court.
Justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Mary Yu did not join the dissent and Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis was not present to vote.
Voters will have a chance to seek clarity as justices Madsen, Whitener and Yu are up for election this year. In the meantime, the court must do a better job at balancing the need to mitigate the long-term impact of the juvenile justice system while preserving trust and transparency.
The public should expect no less from the state’s highest court.