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Supreme Court Issues Encarnacion Decision, But Clarity in Rules for Sealing Court Records Appears Lacking.

Posted by Ryan Robertson on Jul 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

This morning, thirteen months after hearing oral argument, the State Supreme Court issued its decision in Hundtofte v. Encarnacion.

I have only begun researching the implications of this decision, and will write more later. For now, here is some initial information about the case.

Background:

In 2012, a King County Superior Court judge granted a motion brought by Encarnacion to redact his name from court records for an unlawful detainer action. The unlawful detainer action was meritless, and was dismissed. But its existence appeared on background checks for housing applications, causing serious harm to his family. Redaction kept the case from appearing on background checks so he could rent an apartment for his family.

The Court of Appeals reversed this decision. This Court found that the justification for redacting Encarnacion's name was not compelling enough, and ordered the redaction reversed.

The Supreme Court today has AFFIRMED the Court of Appeals decision. But this decision may not provide any real clarity on the issues addressing sealing and/or redacting court records.

First: There is no majority decision. There are nine Supreme Court justices, and five votes are needed for a majority decision. Here, five judges agreed that the ultimate ruling of the Court of Appeals was correct, but there is no majority of justices in agreement as to why the Court of Appeals ruling was correct.

  • Four justices wrote that Encarnacion's concerns about housing were not important enough to justify redaction.
  • One justice simply did not believe a name could be redacted from court records, but otherwise did not agree with the other four.
  • Two justices wrote a blistering dissent rejecting the four justices' argument that housing concerns are not an important interest to justify redaction.
  • Two justices wrote that the appeal should have been dismissed on procedural grounds.

So, five justices agreed generally that Encarnacion's name should not have been redacted, but only four justices believed Encarnacion's justifications for redaction were insufficient.

This opinion does notappear to provide any guidance for trial courts in future cases. This result is disappointing. At least some of the justices appear to understand the harm that arises when court records are used to deny housing and other interests. But the lack of consensus means that we still do not have clear standards to apply in court.

About the Author

Ryan Robertson

Ryan is a creative and articulate advocate who limits his practice to criminal appeals and post-conviction relief including vacation, expungement, and sealing of records. He has worked exclusively in the criminal defense field since passing the Washington State bar exam in 1998. Ryan has been recognized as a Rising Star lawyer by Law & Politics Magazine.

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Ryan Robertson's practice focuses exclusively on high-quality creative appellate representation in criminal and administrative matters, as well as expungements, vacation of records, and petitions to seal.