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PLN prevails in medical records lawsuit in Washington Supreme Court

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2005.
PLN prevails in medical records lawsuit in Washington Supreme Court - Seattle Times 2005

Friday, July 15, 2005 - 12:00 AM

State prison doctor records to be opened

By Christine Clarridge
Seattle Times staff reporter

The state Department of Corrections must release the names of prison-system doctors who have been disciplined or investigated for medical misconduct, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In its 6-3 decision, the high court ruled that the Department of Corrections (DOC) must release internal records relating to allegations of medical misconduct requested in 2000 under the state's Public Disclosure Act by former prison inmate Paul Wright, an editor for Prison Legal News.

Wright's efforts drew support from advocates of open government. First Amendment lawyers argued on behalf of Prison Legal News, and several organizations submitted supporting briefs, including Washington Coalition for Open Government, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, American Civil Liberties Union and Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"Secrecy in government is fundamentally anti-democratic, perpetuating bureaucratic errors," wrote Justice Richard Sanders, quoting a landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving The New York Times. "Open debate and discussion of public issues are vital to our national health."

Wright, a prison journalist who was released in 2003 after serving 17 years for murder, had requested the documents to obtain the names of disciplined medical providers and information on any deaths caused by their work, and to shed light on possible problems in the penal system's network of medical providers.

The DOC which responded with 1,200 pages of heavily redacted, or blacked out, documents had argued that as a law-enforcement agency it was exempt from having to make more specific disclosures. Wright said that the names of disciplined medical workers, prisoners' ailments, dates and even the members of the Personnel Appeals Board were redacted, rendering the documents incomprehensible.

Wright sued in Thurston County Superior Court in May 2001. The trial court found that the DOC did not violate the law. The Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

The DOC argued that public release of the information could hinder its ability to enforce the law, that disciplined staff members could face reprisals from inmates, and that inmates would be less likely to report complaints. The DOC also argued that releasing information about unnamed and unidentified patients violates privacy laws because some patients could be identified by their case histories.

The DOC referred calls yesterday to the state Attorney General's Office, which did not return phone calls.

The high court rejected the DOC's arguments, saying that the DOC's internal investigations into its health-care system were not part of its "law enforcement" capacity, and that it would be able to control any repercussions against medical providers or inmates within the confines of the institution.

Wright argued that the DOC, which released the redacted documents about six months after his initial request, did not respond to his requests in a reasonable time and that the DOC inappropriately claimed exceptions to the state's Public Disclosure Act.

The high court yesterday sent the case back to Thurston County, where a trial court will determine the amount of statutory penalties, which can run between $5 and $100 a day for each day that a public record was withheld.

The DOC knows that news is "the stock and trade of journalism," Wright said. "They've adopted these policies of obstruction and delay to make this information stale."