Some residents of Spokane, Wash. were amused to learn from a newspaper report last week that a local judge had sued his neighbor whose pet cat refused to stop using the judge’s back porch as a litter box.
They were less amused to learn that the plaintiff had persuaded a fellow judge seal the court record.
Would the public ever know the details?
Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and legal activist, hopes so. He heard about the case from the defendant’s lawyer long before the public and concluded that the sealing violated the 1st Amendment and state law requiring that justice be administered openly.
“I found no justification for the sealing,” he said in an interview Monday. “There are also no available documents to explain the sealing.”
He filed a motion last month to unseal the case. At least for now, that motion remains sealed too.
“The public has the right to see what’s in this file,” he said.
Here is what is known: Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price was apparently unsuccessful in keeping the cat out of his yard, which is separated from the neighbor’s house by a fence. Price said the urine smell made his back porch uninhabitable, and he and the neighbor, Jennifer Tanaka-Fees, couldn’t agree on a resolution.
So the judge sought a restraining order against her — and by proxy, the cat. That turned into a lawsuit in Superior Court that was eventually settled.
Price has served on the court since 2003. In 2014, he was reported to have been on Gov. Jay Inslee’s short list for a state Supreme Court appointment.
“I have a reputation for being able to get people together and to talk and work together,” Price said at the time, “and that’s important when you have nine justices who all have strong opinions about the law.”
A judge of such stature going to court over a cat doing its business would make for a good story, of course, and probably leave readers chuckling and wanting to know more.
But there’s not a lot more to tell right now.
The sealing was granted in November by Patrick Monasmith, a visiting judge from Stevens County. Neither Price nor Tanaka-Fees are commenting. Even the name of the cat hasn’t been made public.
Monasmith was to have listened to unsealing arguments Friday but had to recuse himself after learning he and Price’s attorney, Bob Dunn, may have a potential conflict of interest: Both were clients of an attorney who represented them in separate legal cases.
Monasmith said he would have certainly considered the argument by Volokh, who oversees a widely read blog called the Volokh Conspiracy.
“When I received Professor Volokh’s pleadings a couple weeks ago … I observed that every judge should be open to the notion that they make mistakes, and if they did, they ought to be able to examine them,” he said.
It’s not Price’s first run-in over sealing his own records: He got the file of his 2005 divorce sealed in adjoining Lincoln County, records show. A Seattle attorney called the move unconstitutional, but Price said it was done as a manner of personal protection.
Price’s attorney, Dunn, didn’t return a request for comment. He did tell the Spokesman-Review newspaper last week he thought the dispute was “silly” but that the sealing was intended to protect Price’s identity and home address.
“He’s presided over some of the most notorious murder cases in Spokane County in the past few years,” Dunn told the paper. “I think it’s probably an embarrassment that he had to take an action against his neighbor.”
A new hearing date will not be set until the Spokane court finds another visiting judge to take the case.
“I don’t know what we’ll find if the file is unsealed,” Volokh said. “It may be something bland and banal, or it may be something significant. Either way, it should be public.”