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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sealed records may violate law

A Spokane County Superior Court judge had his divorce file in Lincoln County sealed last month from public inspection – a legal maneuver that an open-government expert says is highly unusual and likely unconstitutional.

The divorce papers of Superior Court Judge Michael P. Price, represented by Spokane attorney David Crouse, were sealed on Sept. 13 by Lincoln County Superior Court Commissioner Josh Grant.

“The sealing order was unconstitutional, as a matter of law,” said Seattle attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, who also is president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“Judges understand the importance of an open and accountable court system,” she said. “I would think they would understand their own lawsuits would be subject to public scrutiny when they, themselves, venture into the court system.”

Price, who also is a violinist for the Spokane Symphony, was appointed to the Superior Court bench in November 2003. He didn’t return telephone calls for comment.

Crouse, the judge’s attorney, said he moved to keep the file confidential because of personal safety concerns.

Grant confirmed Wednesday he signed the final divorce decree for Price, without being told by Price or his attorney that a paragraph in the legal document made the entire file confidential.

He didn’t offer a direct response when asked if a judge was being offered special treatment not afforded to others who enter the legal system.

“It isn’t going to stay sealed unless they present this court with specific reasons at a hearing,” Lincoln County Superior Court Judge Phil Borst said Wednesday, a day after he was first asked about the sealed file.

“I could order it unsealed right now, but I’m going to give the attorneys an opportunity to respond,” Borst said.

On Tuesday, Borst said he was aware that the divorce file of a Spokane judge had been made confidential, but he wouldn’t provide the petitioner’s name or divulge who sealed the documents.

“I wasn’t the one who sealed it, so don’t look at me,” Borst said with a laugh.

After determining Price’s name and the case number, a reporter attempted to examine the divorce file on Wednesday at the Lincoln County clerk’s office at the county courthouse in Davenport.

“That file is confidential and not available for public inspection,” a deputy clerk responded.

She then directed the reporter to Borst’s chambers, where he said he now was looking into the matter. Borst was on the phone with Price’s Spokane attorney who drafted the document sealing the file.

“There were no efforts at secrecy here,” Crouse said after the judge handed the phone to the reporter.

In representing the Spokane judge, Crouse said he had concerns about Price’s safety and personal information because he frequently “deals with criminals in court.” Crouse also said he asked that the file be kept “confidential” because of personal safety concerns for the judge’s ex-wife and their children.

Crouse didn’t offer an explanation as to why he didn’t tell Grant there was a paragraph keeping the file from public inspection in the otherwise routine-looking “findings of fact and conclusions of law” order that ended the Price marriage dissolution.

As officers of the court, attorneys have ethical obligations to advise judges of any unusual wordings in what are otherwise considered routine court documents.

Price filed for divorce in Lincoln County on March 31 from his wife, Ann Marie Price.

Lincoln County is known as the divorce capital of the state, attracting more than 4,000 filings a year. Frequently, well-known people, including public officials, file their divorce papers in Davenport, hoping to avoid the court records published in daily newspapers.

“I don’t think there’s any reason you can seal the whole file,” Borst said. He said he would schedule a court hearing if Crouse wanted portions of the file redacted from public inspection.

Grant said he wouldn’t have signed Price’s marriage dissolution decree if he had been told it included a confidential clause sealing the file.

“The petition was signed by me without any notice that there was this unusual paragraph in the document,” said Grant, a Wilbur attorney who also is a Lincoln County District Court judge.

Grant said he doesn’t know Price or Crouse.

Earl-Hubbard, the Seattle attorney who specializes in public records issues, said the procedures used to seal the file may have breached constitutional and legal ethics standards.

In cases in the 1980s and 1990s, rulings from the Washington State Supreme Court spelled out strict procedures that must be followed before court records are kept from the public. Those rulings were underscored in July with another Supreme Court ruling that says the Washington Constitution mandates “justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay.”

“What’s disturbing here is an attorney and his client, who’s a judge, who are persons who should know the law, failed to follow that law,” Earl-Hubbard said.