Justices limit what court documents become public

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Washington's Supreme Court has issued an opinion limiting when sealed court documents become public.

In a 5-4 decision Thursday, the justices said that sealed documents are not presumptively public unless a judge relies on them in making a decision - in other words, if they are part of the "administration of justice."

The case involved a divorce in which one of the parties filed several documents containing sensitive tax information. Just hours after the filing, the case was settled out of court - so the documents were never considered by the judge.

Justice Tom Chambers wrote the lead opinion saying the documents are presumed to remain confidential.

In dissent, Justice Debra Stephens said the majority misread court precedent. She said prior decisions made clear that documents filed in anticipation of a court decision - not just part of a court decision - are presumptively public. She said they should only remain sealed unless the party that wants them sealed can show compelling reasons.