Washington Appellate Court Addresses Right to Public Hearings in Civil Cases
by Mark Wilson
On September 19, 2013, the Court of Appeals of Washington held that the state constitution creates a right of public access to the courts shared by civil litigants and the general public. It also held, however, that a litigant waives his right by failing to assert it and lacks standing to assert the right on behalf of the general public.
When Rolando Reyes was incarcerated for burglary in 2004, a Washington Assistant Attorney General (AAG) petitioned to commit him to the Special Commitment Center (SCC) to await trial as a sexually violent predator (SVP). While at the SCC, Reyes was twice convicted of custodial assault with sexual motivation. The SVP petition was dismissed when Reyes was sentenced to another 36 months in prison for the custodial assaults.
In 2008, the AAG re-filed the civil commitment petition and Reyes moved to dismiss. The AAG appeared telephonically and “the judge, two attorneys representing Mr. Reyes ... and a court reporter were present in chambers for the motion hearing.”
The court denied the motion and a bench trial was held nine days later. The judge found that Reyes “was a sexually violent predator and ordered him committed to the SCC.”
On appeal, Reyes challenged the sufficiency of the evidence presented at the bench trial and argued that “the ‘closure’ of the courtroom at the pretrial hearing on his motion to dismiss” violated article I, § 10 of the Washington Constitution, which requires that “justice in all cases shall be administered openly.”
In the latter regard, after an extensive analysis of the text and history of § 10, the Court of Appeals concluded “that the requirement that justice be openly administered includes, at a minimum, the long recognized right of the public to attend court proceedings. The provision is not expressed as an individual right, but as a command to the judiciary ... § 10 creates a right held by all Washingtonians.”
Further, “When a dispositive motion is argued to the court in a civil case, it should be heard in the courtroom or other facility open to the public,” the appellate court wrote. “Any waiver of the public forum will have to take place in the courtroom in accordance with” factors set forth in Seattle Times Co. v. Ishikawa, 97 Wn.2d 30, 640 P.2d 716 (Wash. 1982).
Although Reyes’ motion to dismiss should not have been heard in chambers, the Court of Appeals found that he had waived his § 10 public hearing argument by failing to assert it at the time. The Court added that a “litigant who fails to assert the right to a public hearing must show how he was prejudiced by the closure” of the courtroom to the public.
Discerning “no valid interest in allowing a litigant to assert a right for others that he declined to assert for himself,” the appellate court also concluded that Reyes lacked standing to argue a § 10 violation on behalf of the general public. The lower court’s order was therefore affirmed. See: In re Reyes, 176 Wn. App. 821, 315 P.3d 532 (Wash. Ct. App. 2013).
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Related legal case
In re Reyes
|Cite||176 Wn. App. 821, 315 P.3d 532 (Wash. Ct. App. 2013)|
|Level||State Court of Appeals|