Franklin County citizens are being asked to spend hundreds of thousands of additional dollars on criminal defense this year, but attorneys argue the public shouldn't be told why.
The reason is, to us, elusive.
And judges shouldn't go along with the idea.
Apparently these attorneys have the idea that if citizens know how much the attorneys are being paid, the defendants' rights will be jeopardized.
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This logic is a little hard to follow for most citizens, including us, but judges often seem to find it persuasive.
The latest case at issue is the trial of Vicente Ruiz, accused of participating in the murder of five people in Medina's Body Shop in Pasco in 1987.
Ruiz' first trial ended before a jury even was selected in 2008 to allow for further DNA testing.
His second trial ended in a mistrial because stacks of material pertaining to the case never were delivered to the defense.
His third trial (the current one) has cost more in defense attorney fees than Franklin County budgeted for all of its projected 2010 criminal defense expenses put together.
The Ruiz trial is not the only one. Four other murder trials contribute to the increasing costs.
A recent Herald report by Kristin M. Kraemer and Kristi Pihl found that, "Fees for mental evaluations, private investigators and expert witnesses for criminal defendants are five times what commissioners had expected to spend this year. Specifics of what costs are included in the $500,000 estimate have not been released."
Ruiz' three lawyers claim that their client's case will be harmed by disclosure to the public of where its money is going.
One of the attorneys, Peter Connick of Seattle, said the release of the records could bring the threat of "substantial and irreparable harm" to Ruiz's constitutional rights.
"The media has complained about the costs of trial in Franklin County and specifically named Ruiz as one case that has caused Franklin County a cost problem," Connick said in the motion.
"It is the defense belief that disclosure of indigent defense costs will further poison any jury pool that has not been tainted already (if that's possible to do)."
Protecting the rights of defendants is one of the fundamental tenets of our government.
We would not interfere with that right.
However, as technology moves forward with extraordinary speed in the 21st century, and costs go up as fast or faster, the public deserves a better look at how its money is spent.
Franklin County Commission Chairman Brad Peck told Kraemer and Pihl that if trial costs continue to rise, the choice for county taxpayers will be either severe cuts or higher taxes.
"These are legally mandated expenses," he said. "I don't see that we do have any option."
The judges do have an option, however. They might try to keep in mind that open court is also one of the fundamentals of our government.
Near-automatic granting of any motion to seal court records should end.
Just because a lawyer doesn't want the public to know how much it is paying him or her is no reason to take justice behind a curtain.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads, starting at the beginning: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury ..."
If the accused is guaranteed a public trial, the public can't be locked out.
And how much the public is paying is a part of the trial.