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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal judge orders Washington transgender inmates’ records to remain sealed, for now

The Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse in Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Records that could potentially identify dozens of transgender inmates in Washington’s state prisons must remain sealed for now, a federal judge in Spokane ruled Monday.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice granted a preliminary order sought by five unnamed transgender inmates, represented by Disability Rights Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union. The order prohibits the Washington Department of Corrections from releasing records sought by the Tacoma News Tribune, KIRO Radio and several other requesters regarding any complaints made against transgender inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor following an anonymous report of sexual violence there earlier this spring.

Releasing the records would violate the inmates’ rights under the federal and Washington constitutions to be protected from potential harm both inside the prisons and once released, Rice ruled.

“A preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from releasing documents that contain information related to, or referring to, individuals’ transgender status, sexual history, genital anatomy, and other related information is narrowly drawn and no more intrusive than necessary under the circumstances,” Rice wrote in a 39-page opinion published Monday, the day before an initial order prohibiting release was set to expire.

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys working for Disability Rights Washington, a nonprofit that is working with the Washington Department of Corrections under an agreement in lieu of litigation, and the ACLU. The lawsuit names the Department of Corrections, but not the news outlets that sought the records’ release.

The Spokesman-Review has also requested the records at issue in the case, but is not a party in the lawsuit.

The news outlets, through their attorney, Michele Earl-Hubbard, have argued that the case should be dismissed, or heard in a state courtroom because the laws concerning release of public records are written in state statute. Rice has yet to rule on those motions, but did hear argument from Earl-Hubbard during a telephonic appearance last week in Spokane. He has also ruled that the federal court is the appropriate venue for the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the inmates argue that the news outlets have not taken the formal step of filing to become a party in the case, and their requests should thus be denied.

Rice is set to rule on the requests of the news agencies by the end of this month.