Image via WikipediaThe Washington Supreme Court has ruled that billing records submitted by counsel for indigent murder defendants are subject to the state's Public Records Act of 1972 [42.56 RCW], despite having been sealed by a judge.
The ABA Journal Law News Now blog reports that Washington's High Court also awarded costs and attorneys fees that could run into six figures to The Yakima Herald-Republic, which sought the court-appointed counsel billing information in the drug-related murder trial of Jose Luis Sanchez Jr. and Mario Gil Mendez, who were blamed for the 2005 killings of Ricky Causor and his three-year-old daughter, Mya Causor. (See "TUOL" post 3/11/10.) Mendez pleaded guilty and Sanchez is appealing his conviction in 2007.
The Sanchez defense cost taxpayers $1.5 million and another $560,000 in defense costs for Mendez. A judge charged with overseeing defense counsel spending in the case ordered the billing records sealed, though they were forwarded to the county auditor and board of commissioners so that counsel could be paid. The Yakima Herald-Republic was rebuffed in its efforts to obtain the records under the public records law by officials who feared being held in contempt of court if they produced the sealed documents.
The Supreme Court ruling remands to the trial court the lion's share of the case for new determinations consistent with the high court decision. The Washington Supreme Court faulted officials for shifting its burden to cite an exemption under the public records act to the newspaper, thereby forcing the daily to sue for the data.
Only court records that are exclusively held by the courts are exempt under the public records law, the high court ruled unanimously. Two defense attorneys appointed to represent the defendants were discharged by the court in 2006 for unethical conduct that purportedly led to the wasting of $1 million in taxpayer funds, according to a probe by the AG's office.