A legal fight over whether public records must be disclosed to identify a half-dozen Seattle police officers who attended the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., is headed back to a King County court.
In a brief order on Wednesday, the Washington Supreme Court essentially punted the case, ruling its circumstances have changed so much since a King County judge’s ruling in March that the court order under appeal is essentially irrelevant, and the matter must be reconsidered by the trial court.
“Review of the preliminary injunction ruling is moot in light of changed circumstances,” states the two-page order, signed by Chief Justice Steven C. González.
Along with remanding the case to King County Superior Court, the high court also denied a request to make the unidentified officers — referred to only as “Jane and John Does” in legal papers — use their real names in the ongoing lawsuit. The court said a review of the officers’ “use of pseudonyms is not warranted by the interests of justice,” but added that argument could be made again at the trial court.
Blair Russ and Aric Bomsztyk, the attorneys hired by the Seattle Police Officers Guild to represent four of the officers who remain unidentified, said in an email Wednesday they were “appreciative of the Washington State Supreme Court giving due weight to the results of a formal administrative investigation clearing these Officers of any wrongdoing.”
Neil Fox, an attorney representing Seattle University law student Sam Sueoka — one of four individuals who sought records from the Seattle Police Department to identify the officers — said Wednesday his team will immediately refile that motion in King County Superior Court, arguing the officers must “reveal their identities if they want to pursue their lawsuit.”
“We hope that the superior court will release to the public these important records without much more delay,” Fox added in an email.
The legal fight was sparked in February by the six unidentified officers who faced an internal investigation for attending the “Steal” rally before the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
After Sueoka and the others separately requested records about the officers while the investigation was still underway, the city voluntarily notified the officers it was prepared to release some records unless they got a court order to stop it. The officers sued the city and all four requesters, seeking to block release of the records.
In March, King County Superior Court Judge Sandra Widlan ruled against the officers’ arguments that privacy rights barred release of the records, finding they attended a public rally and the records in question must be disclosed.
Four months after the March order, which was stayed during the officers’ appeal of it, the city’s Office of Police Accountability completed and released the outcome of a detailed six-month investigation. It found two of the officers, who have since been fired and identified in the press as Alexander Everett and Caitlin Rochelle, had trespassed on restricted grounds outside the Capitol during an “active insurrection.”
Three of the other four officers were cleared of allegations of unprofessional conduct and did not break any laws, the investigation found. Evidence wasn’t conclusive as to whether the fourth officer broke any rules or laws.
Following release of OPA’s findings, the lawyers initially representing all six officers withdrew from the case. As the appeal of Widlan’s ruling made its way to the Supreme Court, the police union hired Bomsztyk and Russ for the four officers cleared by the internal investigation.
Last week, attorneys for both sides, as well as for the city of Seattle, argued the appeal before the Supreme Court justices.
As part of its order Wednesday, the Supreme Court extended a temporary restraining order barring disclosure of the records for 30 days “to allow the trial court to consider any motion to extend the temporary restraining order pending further proceedings in that court.”