The Seattle Times hit obstacles when it tried to find out how much public money was paid to defense experts in civil-commitment cases. Judges had improperly sealed hundreds pages of court records, and public-defense groups filed suit to keep other invoices secret. But The Times prevailed.

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When The Seattle Times tried to find out how much money flowed to defense experts in civil-commitment cases here, it ran into two roadblocks.

King County Superior Court judges had improperly sealed hundreds of pages of court records that authorized public funds to hire the experts.

And when The Times, using the Public Records Act, asked a state agency for dozens of detailed invoices for experts, two public-defense associations filed a lawsuit to keep the records secret.

The invoices identified defense experts, their hourly rates, travel costs and how much they had been compensated by the state.

But after several months of legal wrangling last year, both in and out of court, The Times obtained the vast majority of the records.

Judges unsealed King County court records in 13 commitment cases, some 240 documents. After a costly legal battle with the public defenders, The Times obtained nearly all the invoices it had sought.

Sealed indefinitely

Defense lawyers are paid to represent indigent sex offenders as the state seeks to lock them up at the Special Commitment Center. The lawyers typically hire an expert, usually a psychologist, to evaluate the sex offender. They also request an order from a judge to obtain public funds to pay for the expert.

The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which runs the commitment center, pays the bills.

Defense lawyers often asked judges to seal these requests and related documents, saying they needed to conceal the names of the experts as they prepared for trial.

Court rules allow certain records to be sealed, but only if lawyers provide compelling reasons why secrecy is needed.

In most cases, according to a Times’ review, lawyers gave vague or incomplete reasons. Also, judges sealed the records indefinitely, rather than providing a time when they should become public.

The Times asked three King County Superior Court judges to review the handful of civil-commitment cases on each of their dockets, which had numerous sealed records.

Judges William Downing, Richard Eadie and Michael Trickey agreed. They determined that dozens of documents were improperly sealed or no longer needed to be secret, and unsealed them.

The judges said they were unaware of these sealing orders, and discovered that other judges had approved them.

Downing said he was shocked to discover that after he denied a defense lawyer’s request to seal an order to transport an offender, the lawyer then went to a different judge, who approved it.

According to a report to the state Bench-Bar-Press Committee, Downing wrote that lawyers failed 95 percent of the time to provide “compelling reasons” for secrecy and instead used “boilerplate” language.

“Many of the documents in question were apparently sealed more through habit and routine than analysis,” Downing said in his rulings to unseal.

He also told the lawyers that once an expert has testified, documents should be unsealed because the public has an “interest in knowing how their tax dollars are being spent.”

He also cited a 2011 state Supreme Court decision, Yakima County v. Yakima Herald-Republic, which said the public had a right to see certain records of spending by public defenders. (The Seattle Times Co. owns the Herald-Republic.)

Based on a Times review, there are likely hundreds of documents still improperly sealed in other King County civil-commitment cases.

Suing for secrecy

Last March, The Times filed a public-records request with DSHS, seeking the detailed invoices submitted by defense psychologists in King County civil-commitment cases.

At first, DSHS said it considered the invoices to be sex offenders’ medical records that could not be disclosed. After The Times objected, the agency offered the invoices with offenders’ names redacted, which the newspaper declined.

DSHS then said it would provide the experts’ invoices in entirety but only after it gave defense lawyers a chance to object to their release. Lawyers had stamped “Attorney Work Product Not Subject To Public Disclosure” on many of the invoices. In most cases, the forensic experts already had testified or filed reports with the court.

The Defender Association and the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons did not want the records made public and sued to restrain DSHS from giving the newspaper records of five “John Doe” sex offenders.

After considering briefs and hearing arguments, King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty on May 6 denied the defense lawyers’ request.

DSHS released the documents, some 329 pages of billing records.

On a few dozen pages, the agency redacted offenders’ names in those instances in which the expert’s identity hadn’t been disclosed to prosecutors.