A Spokane County Superior Court judge sued his neighbor over cat pee, then successfully argued to have the case records sealed from public view.
A Friday hearing could determine whether those records stay closed.
The case began last year when Judge Michael Price and his wife, Claire, sought a “restraining order” against their neighbor’s cat because the animal was routinely using the back porch of their South Hill home as a litter box, according to the couple’s attorney, Bob Dunn.
“It got to the point where the Price family couldn’t go outside and enjoy themselves because of the smell,” said Dunn, who characterized the case as “a silly dispute between neighbors.”
An employee with the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service confirmed that animal control responded to Price’s address at least once last year for a “cat at large.”
Said Dunn, “There’s a city ordinance that says you got to keep your cat on a leash if you let it outside, and a lot of people don’t know that.”
The cat’s owner, Jennifer Tanaka-Fees, who shares a backyard fence with the Price family, declined to comment. So did her attorney, Jeffry Finer.
A message left with Michael Price’s chambers was not immediately returned Wednesday. And attorney Steven Hughes, who represented Price during most of the legal proceedings, referred questions to Dunn.
The legal case was recently resolved, but the outcome wasn’t immediately clear. Dunn said there was no trial and no one recovered financial damages.
Judge Patrick Monasmith, who visited from Stevens County to hear the case, ordered almost all of the case records sealed in November.
That two-page sealing order appears to be the only publicly accessible document in the case. In it, Monasmith wrote that he was “mindful of pertinent case law and statutory authority” and named four previous Washington cases that challenged sealing orders, but he did not elaborate on his reasoning.
Dunn said Price wanted the records sealed because he didn’t want personal information known to criminals seeking retaliation for their prison sentences.
“The case was put under seal to protect Judge Price’s identity and where he lives, being that he’s involved in felony sentencings,” Dunn said.
He added that Price, who was appointed to the Superior Court in 2003, typically deals with more serious legal matters.
“He’s presided over some of the most notorious murder cases in Spokane County in the past few years,” Dunn said. “I think it’s probably an embarrassment that he had to take an action against his neighbor.”
Dunn also downplayed the feline fiasco, calling it “much ado about nothing.”
Eugene Volokh, meanwhile, believes people have a right to know what’s in those court records.
Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who runs a popular blog called the Volokh Conspiracy, has filed a lengthy motion to unseal the case, which Judge Monasmith is expected to consider during a hearing on Friday afternoon.
“I think that the sealing order is incorrect under Washington law and under the First Amendment,” said Volokh, who’s known as an authority on free speech issues and recently intervened to unseal a libel case in Nevada.
“I’m not a lawyer in Washington, but because I’m intervening on my own behalf, I believe I’m entitled to do that,” Volokh said. “Everybody has an individual right to get access to court files.”
The hearing is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.
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