In State v. Chen, the Washington Supreme held that once a competency evaluation becomes a court record, it also becomes subject to the constitutional presumption of openness, which can be rebutted only when the trial court makes an individualized finding that the Ishikawa factors weigh in favor of sealing. The Court essentially balanced the public’s right to know, on the one hand, with a litigant’s privacy right, on the other, and reaffirmed its previous holdings that the Ishikawa factors appropriately guide that analysis – generally favoring redaction (if warranted) rather than sealing.
Louis Chen was accused of two counts of aggravated murder. After the State filed formal charges, the defense presented mitigation materials in an effort to discourage the State from seeking the death penalty. These materials included a psychiatric opinion that Chen was not competent to stand trial. In response, the State requested, and the trial court issued, an order requiring Chen to have his competency evaluated a second time. Based on that evaluation, the trial court found Chen competent to stand trial.
The defense also moved to seal the competency evaluation pursuant to RCW 10.77.210, which limits disclosure of such competency evaluations. The trial court instructed the parties to submit a motion to seal, applying the so-called Ishikawa factors. The trial court declined to seal the evaluation but did redact certain information.
The question presented in the Washington Supreme Court was how to reconcile the resulting conflict between RCW 10.77.210, which limits disclosure of competency evaluations, and the constitutional requirement in Washington that “[j]ustice shall be administered openly.”
- The Court noted that it has already rejected the principle that a statute can mandate privacy where the constitution requires openness, including with regard to identifying information of child victims of sexual assault and involuntary commitment proceedings.
- The ACLU, as amicus, urged the Court to apply the foregoing rule only where there is no statutory guidance. The Court rejected this argument and held, to the contrary, that “competency evaluations are presumptively open once they become court records.”
- In support of its ruling, the Court noted that “the idea of a public check on the judicial process may be especially important where competency is at issue.” This, the Court reasoned, further supports the constitutional presumption of openness.
- Applying this presumption of openness to the facts before it, the Court held that the trial court correctly considered the Ishikawa factors and redacted information rather than sealing the entire evaluation.