A neighbor’s cat wouldn’t stop peeing on a Washington judge’s back porch — so he filed a restraining order against the rogue pet, according to the judge’s lawyer.
“It got to the point where the Price family couldn’t go outside and enjoy themselves because of the smell,” Bob Dunn, an attorney for Judge Michael Price and his wife, Claire, told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Dunn said the entire matter is “a silly dispute between neighbors.”
But more is at stake than a Spokane superior court judge’s right to a urine-free porch, according to one legal expert: Price successfully got the court files on the now-resolved case sealed, which shields the resolution of the dispute from public eyes.
That raises legal concerns given the fact that court files are supposed to be open and accessible to the public under the First Amendment — not to mention under Washington state’s constitution, which provides even stronger public access protections, according to Eugene Volokh, a University of California Los Angeles law professor who writes about legal and political issues on a blog called The Volokh Conspiracy.
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“Files are supposed to be open to the public,” Volokh said in a phone interview. “My view is that, in this case, there was not an adequate justification” to seal the files from public view.
To that end, Volokh filed a motion asking the court to unseal the files, and a hearing is expected Friday on the case, the Spokesman-Review reports.
So what can the public know about the outcome of the judge's suit right now?
Beyond the November 2017 order to seal the records, nothing is publicly available, Volokh said. He provided McClatchy a copy of that order, in which Judge Patrick Monasmith wrote he was “mindful of pertinent case law and statutory authority,” including Washington cases that previously took issue with sealed records. Still, the judge sealed the files.
Volokh said he got involved after the defendant’s lawyer, with whom he had worked on another case, called him for advice.
But even though Price’s lawyer laid out specifics of the feline dispute in a newspaper interview, Volokh said he can’t speak with the same candor about what he knows so long as the files are sealed from public view — “even though the cat is out of the bag.”
Price’s lawyer portrayed the sealing as a matter of safety for a judge who deals with criminals: “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 told the Spokesman-Review.
Volokh said, at least in general, it’s more complicated than that.
“I don’t think one can categorically seal all that, even if there’s a security dimension to it,” Volokh said.
It’s not just this case, either — across the country, Volokh described instances where there has been “a systemic pattern of inadmissible sealing.”
But why fight for court records to be sealed at all? Sometimes both sides are fine with keeping the case details secret, even if it may violate the law, Volokh said.
“In many cases … both parties are quite willing or even eager to litigate the matter confidentially,” Volokh said, mentioning divorces and other proceedings. “What sometimes happens is the judge — judges are busy people, they want to see the case taken care of — the judge says, ‘Sure, I’ll go along with it,’ without adequately considering the interest of the public.”
Jennifer Tanaka-Fees is the defendant in the case, the sealing order said. She and the judge have abutting backyards, divided by a fence, the Spokesman-Review reports. Tanaka-Fees and her attorney declined to speak to the newspaper.
Local animal control confirmed to the Spokesman-Review that it was called to the judge’s house regarding a “cat at large” — and Dunn, the judge’s lawyer, pointed to “a city ordinance that says you got to keep your cat on a leash if you let it outside.”
If Volokh has his way, though, the case will be unsealed — and the (perhaps juicy, perhaps not) details will be publicly available.
“I’m hoping that if I do get it unsealed, you’ll find it to be interesting for other reasons,” Volokh said. “What those reasons are, we’ll have to wait.”