Penchant for secrecy: One judge has sealed 12 cases
By Ken Armstrong and Justin Mayo
April 23, 2010
King County Superior Court judge Sharon Armstrong
The judge, speaking from the bench, told the baffled lawyer:
"But for the unusual facts of this case, we wouldn't be doing this."
To the lawyer, Michael Killeen, the "this" was unheard of. Sharon Armstrong, a King County
Superior Court judge, had sealed the entire case file in a lawsuit over a Metro bus accident.
What's more, she had barred the public from her courtroom — in the middle of trial, after a
newspaper reporter had stepped in to watch.
She was trying the case in private, deciding who was right and who was wrong, who would
pay and how much — and all in a public courtroom, with a sign on the door saying "Closed."
Killeen didn't know it, but the sealing of files extended well beyond this case. A Seattle
Times investigation has found hundreds of civil suits sealed improperly in King County since
1990 — lawsuits accusing doctors of negligence, lawyers of misconduct, public agencies of
harmful mistakes. And no judge has sealed more cases than Armstrong.
In the Metro case, which went to trial in 1993, Killeen represented The Times, which wanted
the courtroom and court file opened. He asked the judge why secrecy was needed.
Armstrong said she was protecting the plaintiff, a woman hit by a Metro bus in a crosswalk.
Publication of her name and circumstances "would probably result in either her suicide or in
people locating her and harming her," Armstrong said.
Killeen didn't understand. Who said the woman would commit suicide? And based on what?
But Armstrong refused to give details. Doing so, she said, would cause "the very harm" she
wanted to prevent.
Killeen told Armstrong he couldn't find a single precedent for a judge
sealing an entire file. An occasional document, yes. But never the whole file.
Armstrong said: "It's not something I do lightly. I have never sealed a file —
or sealed a file or closed a hearing before."
That wasn't true.
The year before, Armstrong had sealed the whole file in another case involving a motor-
vehicle accident. That file contained "politically sensitive material," her sealing order said.
Four years before that, Armstrong had sealed a discrimination lawsuit against the Seattle
And in the years following the Metro lawsuit, Armstrong sealed more files yet. She has
sealed at least a dozen cases since 1988 — the most of any judge in King County during
that time, according to a Seattle Times analysis of available sealing orders.
To seal, a judge must find "compelling circumstances," a demanding legal standard. But in
most cases Armstrong has found "good cause" — a lower threshold — or cited no standard
at all. A judge must also spell out the need for secrecy. But Armstrong's sealing orders have
offered little or no explanation.
What makes this all so puzzling is Armstrong's overall reputation for excellence. Lawyers
and judges describe her by stacking adjectives of praise. "I think Sharon Armstrong is a
superb judge," said Presiding Judge Michael Trickey. "She is thoughtful, intelligent,
dedicated." Judge William Downing said: "She is bright, talented, industrious, entirely
committed to the rule of law and attentive to all her duties."
She is entrusted with complex civil cases and oversees all of the court's asbestos litigation.
She handles a docket so large that she sometimes hears motions on weekends. And she
has served as chief of both the civil and criminal divisions.
So what explains all those sealed cases? Armstrong declined comment, saying it would be
inappropriate to talk about cases that The Times may be filing motions to open. But one
answer may be: When Armstrong was sealing entire cases, she wasn't being challenged.
The parties went along, and the public didn't know.
The public didn't know about the two lawsuits she sealed in 1995. One accused a lawyer
and his firm of bilking a wealthy client. That case settled for about $1 million, and the
lawyer's license was subsequently suspended. The other lawsuit was a business dispute,
which Armstrong sealed to protect "the parties' competitive interests."
The public didn't know about the three lawsuits she sealed in 1997. One involved a
pedophile priest, another a registered counselor, and the third featured one lawyer suing
In 2002, Armstrong sealed three more lawsuits. One accused a state employee of molesting
juveniles at a youth lockup. Another accused a drug-lab director of secretly videotaping
women providing urinalysis samples. The third accused a law firm of malpractice. Sealing it
was "consistent with the parties' settlement agreement," Armstrong's order said.
And many other judges, including the court's most esteemed, were sealing entire files as
well. Former Judge Robert Alsdorf, for example, sealed at least seven, including one against
the state and another against a prominent attorney.
"I didn't like signing the sealing orders, but I did sign them," he said. "For those judges,
including me, who sealed cases when there was an agreed order, it was a reasonable way
to keep the cases moving."
(Alsdorf is now a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, a law firm that represents The Times.
He is not participating in any motions by the newspaper to unseal cases.)
Between 1988 and 2002, the only challenge Armstrong received for sealing a file was in the
Metro case. She denied the newspaper's motion — and The Times didn't appeal.
It wasn't until 2004 that the newspaper would bring Armstrong's sealing practices before a
In May 2003, Judge Armstrong signed an order finding merit to a shareholder lawsuit
alleging insider trading and deceptive financial reporting by InfoSpace, a dot-com company
once worth more on paper than Boeing.
At the time, corporate scandals were all over the news, from Enron to WorldCom,
intensifying public interest in knowing what was going on inside company walls.
Armstrong had not allowed the entire InfoSpace file to be sealed — just big chunks of it,
including crucial documents. She even took the extraordinary step of sealing one of her key
rulings in the case.
The purpose of the May order was to say which parts of the lawsuit could go forward, and
why. But her order was "virtually indecipherable," a Times lawyer wrote in an appellate brief.
That's because Armstrong's order was based upon a sealed investigative report; sealed
arguments discussing the sealed report; and her sealed ruling.
"A riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma," the Times' attorney called the order,
quoting Winston Churchill.
A Times reporter, David Heath, had earlier written Armstrong, asking her to unseal the
lawsuit's records. She advised him to file a formal motion. So the newspaper did — and
Armstrong denied the motion.
Her reasoning: In these kinds of cases — shareholder derivative lawsuits — records get
produced that wouldn't normally be disclosed, such as attorney-client communications. If
those records were public, they might be used by InfoSpace stockholders who were suing
company executives in a class-action lawsuit in federal court.
"She was acting on behalf of the company and not on behalf of the public," said Judith
Endejan, a lawyer who argued the case for The Times.
This time, the newspaper appealed — a process that cost tens of thousands of dollars, just
for one case.
In 2004, the Washington Supreme Court reversed Armstrong, 9-0. The landmark decision
reinforced rules restricting court secrecy that had been in place since the early 1980s.
"Justice must be conducted openly to foster the public's understanding and trust in our
judicial system and to give judges the check of public scrutiny," the court wrote. "Secrecy
The case was kicked back to Superior Court, and records were unsealed. The Times used
those records, including hundreds of internal e-mails and other documents, to reveal to the
public how InfoSpace had used accounting tricks and dubious deals to mislead investors.
Since 1990, at least 420 civil cases have been sealed in their entirety in King County
Superior Court, The Times has found. Nearly all were sealed improperly.
In December, when the newspaper alerted the court to its findings, the court's top
administrative judges came up with a plan that would have opened many, if not most, of the
files with minimal delay.
But other judges objected, voting 21-9 to make the newspaper file a motion to unseal in
every case, a requirement that imposes extraordinary expense and delay.
The judge who made the motion to overturn the leadership's plan was Armstrong.
The judges in the majority cited a Washington Supreme Court rule that says that files may
be unsealed only by agreement of the parties or upon motion. But this is the same rule that
says there must be compelling circumstances to seal records in the first place — a
requirement judges have widely ignored.
Some judges have acknowledged error and have unsealed cases without a formal motion.
But Armstrong, in an e-mail reply to a constituent that was provided to The Times, said
"court rules and ethical obligations" require a proper motion to unseal.
"The public is ill-served by judges who take legal action, in violation of court rules and
established law, simply because of a threat of adverse publicity," she wrote last week.
"One of the hallmarks of a democracy is the independence of the judiciary."
Judicial experience: Appointed
a King County Superior Court
judge in 1985. Has remained
on the bench by winning
Judicial positions: Has served
as the Superior Court's chief
civil judge and chief criminal
judge. On the court's
executive committee for more
than 12 years.
Before becoming a judge:
Spent six years at the law firm
Garvey Schubert Barer;
worked at the Federal Trade
Commission; served as
president of the Board of
Directors of Evergreen Legal
Services; taught in public
schools in Washington, D.C.
Outstanding Jurist of the Year,
American Board of Trial
chapter), 1998; Outstanding
Judge, King County Bar
[This kind of makes you
wonder if the right people
are given awards, doesn't it?]
Bachelor's degree in English
from Stanford University;
master's degree in education
from Catholic University of
America; [The Catholic
University of America (CUA) is
a private university located in
Washington, D.C. in the
United States. It is a pontifical
university of the Catholic
Church in the United States
and the only institution of
higher education founded by
the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Judge Judith Hayes also
graduated from CUA.]
law degree from the University
of Washington School of Law.
Source: King County Superior
Court; The Seattle Times
|San Diego Education Report
Judge Sharon Armstrong
after 27 years as a judge
on the King County
Superior Court. Prior to
serving as a judge,
she practiced law at
Garvey, Schubert &
where her practice
civil litigation, and prior to
that she was a trial
attorney for the Federal
handling trade regulation
Judge Armstrong has tried
a wide range of cases,
and was especially known
for handling complex
disputes. Her experience
includes business cases,
class actions, employment,
securities and financial
Judge Armstrong is
lauded by the legal
community for being
engaged, and prepared.
Lawyers say she is
efficient and at the same
time very effective and
fair, and has a great deal
of patience and respect
for all parties. Her
demeanor, skills and vast
themselves to her being
a very effective and fair
neutral for all types of
cases. [downloaded Dec.
A penchant for
she's retired. But in
Dec. 2013 this
is proudly offering
Catholic University, the alma mater of Judge
Judith Hayes, has produced judges whose
behavior is considerably outside the norm.
Judge Sharon Armstrong
(graduate of Catholic University)