Commentary: Courts can't conceal public dangers

This editorial appeared in The (Tacoma) News Tribune.

In theory, the sealing of court records shouldn't hide evidence of a continuing threat to public safety. In reality, it happens.

Firestone, for example, long succeeded in concealing evidence that some of its tires were prone to tread separation that could cause crashes. When it settled with plaintiffs who'd claimed injury, it negotiated the sealing of the settlements.

Likewise, Merck succeeded in sealing records that might have alerted the public to the risks of heart attacks from its anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx. Innocent people have died as a result of secret settlements bought with hush money. Such coverups ought to be against the law. They would be under a bill sponsored by state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle.

Senate Bill 5886 is very simple. It has two premises: that the public deserves reasonable access to information about public hazards, and that courts should not be used to conceal information necessary to public safety.

It would create "a presumption against the sealing of court documents" that relate to products or properties that pose ongoing dangers to unsuspecting people.

As the law now stands, courts – when sealing records of litigation – are required to balance public safety against the confidentiality of trade secrets, research or other sensitive corporate information.

The public interest is supposed to prevail in this balancing act. But the law has enough wiggle room and terms of art that Merck, for example, was able to prevail in keeping allegations about Vioxx sealed.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Tacoma) News Tribune.

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