Our Voice: Sealing court records threat to open government

March 17, 2013 

Eric Page ought to be commended for turning his life around after his 1996 conviction for stealing from his employer.

But his exemplary conduct in the years since he was found guilty of stealing bicycles and parts worth $38,000 from Richland Schwinn doesn't outweigh the principles of open government enshrined in the state's constitution.

Last week, Superior Court Judge Robert Swisher granted Page's request to seal his court file to hide the former West Richland man's criminal record from a potential business partner. Swisher narrowed Page's original request for a year's worth of secrecy to 60 days, by which time background checks preceding his business deal should be completed.

Page told the court he felt he owed a significant debt to society and his family, and struggled to get the Army to grant a waiver for his theft conviction so he could enlist.

He became a paratrooper and was injured in an explosion in Iraq and hurt again when his parachute failed to fully deploy.

After his honorable discharge in 2006, Page started Grey Group Training. The company's 20 employees provide training, equipment and consulting to military, agencies and government contractors.

It's a remarkable turnaround, and the court agreed to vacate his conviction last year. The move restores his rights, allowing Page to own a gun, for instance. Page earned that break from our judicial system.

But his court records remain public under our state constitution, at least until last week's decision.

There are some troubling aspects to Swisher's action. It's difficult to understand why Page's interests ought to be any more pressing than those of the folks who want to conduct business with him.

Page told the court that the owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Sports is looking to buy Grey Group and expand its operations across the country. Page would stay on as chief of operations and retain a minority partnership.

He said if his criminal file is out in the public, it could affect Blue Ridge's decision to invest in his company.

But why shouldn't Blue Ridge have all the information it needs to make its investment decisions?

We think that it would be foolish to abandon an otherwise favorable business deal because of something Page did when he was 19, and through his good conduct put far behind him.

But it's not our decision to make.

We're even more troubled by the precedent. Court records are open to the public under our state Constitution for good reason. Nothing is more fundamental to a functioning democracy than ensuring the judicial system is accountable to the people.

And openness is essential to accountability.

In 2010, a Seattle Times investigation found hundreds of improperly sealed court records in civil cases. The cases involved an alleged pedophile priest; another against a child care company; and one against a schoolteacher accused of molesting students.

Since then, the state Supreme Court has clarified rules on sealing court records. A judge must enter written findings that identify "compelling privacy or safety concerns that outweigh the public interest" in open court records.

We share Swisher's sympathy for Page's predicament. He deserves to be judged for the man he's become, not the boy he was 17 years ago.

But our regard for Page is trumped by our concerns about open government.

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