Can people have their names retroactively hidden in public records if they are wrongfully sued? The Washington State Supreme Court recently ruled that the answer is no.
It’s the right call, but the facts of the case compelled four justices to favor an exception. Certainly the victims in this case deserve sympathy, but it was wise to keep the solution out of the court’s reach.
The culprit here isn’t a defective public records law; it’s a senseless private sector policy.
The case involved a family of five who had signed a one-year lease on an apartment in Burien. One month into the lease, the apartments were sold, and the new owner wanted the family to switch to a month-to-month lease. The family refused, and the landlord sued to evict them. The case was settled, and the family moved. When they applied for a new apartment, the prospective landlord conducted a background check, found the lawsuit in court records, and refused to rent to them.
The family asked a King County clerk to replace their name in the court record with initials so it wouldn’t happen again. The clerk said no; a judge said yes. And the case landed at the Supreme Court.
The problem isn’t the availability of the family’s name in court records. It’s the rental company’s policy to automatically turn down anyone who has been sued for eviction, regardless of the outcome. The policy is lazy and thoughtless, and changing public record law would be the wrong remedy.
Anyone can be sued at any time. Frivolous lawsuits abound. If there is any government solution, it should be a legislative look into why it’s legal to turn down renters over events they can’t control.
Granting a public records exception invites a slippery slope. Redact the names of all winning defendants in civil and criminal courts because some witless company might punish them?
The phenomenon of expunging one’s past is catching on in countries without First Amendment constraints. In May, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that Internet search engines such as Google must erase links to a person’s past if that’s requested. Public records would still exist, but the links to them would expire after some time has passed.
The media, including this newspaper, often receive requests from people that articles about them be deleted from websites. Open societies should resist the urge to help people shape their online personas. Open governments should vigorously defend the sanctity of public records.
The state already has more than 300 exceptions to the Public Records Act, adopted overwhelming by the voters in 1972. It should repeal some of those exceptions, not grant more.
Individual causes may sound compelling, but the cumulative erosion of public information is bad for democracy.
As Justice Susan Owens wrote, “Keeping court records open is a vital constitutional safeguard. The privacy interest at stake in this case is not so compelling as to warrant redaction.”
The family in this case was wronged. The urge to help was powerful. But we applaud the court majority for defending open government against a misguided solution.