In a fine holiday gift to the people of Washington, the state Supreme Court affirmed that legislators are indeed subject to the Public Records Act.

The 7-2 decision should ensure open government prevails in Olympia. That’s what Washingtonians have expected since they created the act with a 1972 initiative.

Even so, the public must remain vigilant. Some legislators still will favor secrecy and sympathize with special interests angling to make government less open and accountable.

The ruling also has a problematic wrinkle that theoretically enables legislators to hide some records. The majority ruling said legislators individually are subject to the act, but the Legislature itself is a distinct entity, subject to narrower disclosure rules.

That creates a potential loophole for, say, sexual misconduct reports if they’re handled exclusively by the House Clerk and Senate Secretary. Again, this requires vigilance to prevent legislators from using such tricks to hide things the public should know.

Legislators have been subject to the act all along. But in recent years, they declared themselves above the law, skirting disclosure rules followed by other state agencies, plus every city, county and school board.


A coalition of media organizations, led by The Associated Press and including The Seattle Times, sued in September 2017 and prevailed in Thurston County Superior Court in January 2018. Legislators appealed, then hustled through a bill enshrining their special treatment, prompting a massive outcry. Nearly 20,000 citizens and newspapers statewide demanded that Gov. Jay Inslee veto the bill, which he did.

Unabashed, legislators briefly considered another bill this year that would have exempted some of their records.

They must give that up for good, after Thursday’s ruling, penned by Justice Susan Owens. Seven of nine justices emphatically said the act fully applies to legislators.

Three signed a partial dissent, authored by Chief Justice Debra Stephens, that said both legislators and the Legislature are fully subject to the act. Stephens wisely referred to the will of the people who created the act, not the gyrations of lawmakers trying to evade it.

Two justices, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Steven Gonzalez, dissented, arguing that narrower disclosure rules apply to both legislators and the Legislature.

The majority opinion should also prevent legislators from sneakily exempting themselves. Justices rejected arguments that exemptions were created by quiet tweaks to the law in 2005 and 2007.


“The exemption of any government entity from the PRA’s general public records disclosure mandate constitutes a major political action … Without more — such as notice to the electorate that legislators were attempting to exempt themselves from the PRA — neither amendment was sufficient to accomplish that feat,” it states.

Democrats now controlling the state House and Senate say they accept the ruling and favor transparency. That’s good to hear. They should back those words up by rejecting any proposals that attempt to give legislators special treatment or otherwise narrow the records act.

“We’re going to fully comply,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, told this editorial board.

Sullivan said it’s settled.

“At this point, as leadership, I don’t see us moving forward with legislation during the next session to do anything other than what’s the law and the Supreme Court has decided,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, would not absolutely rule out public-records legislation being introduced in the opinion’s wake. But he said “we’ll comply” and has no plans himself to seek any exemption.

“The future is that we’re going to be more transparent, and we’re going to comply with the decision. That’s a good thing,” Billig told this board. He said there was not consensus among legislators to be fully subject to the records act “so we needed the court ruling to do that.”


Legislators prepared for this outcome, training staff and readying their offices for compliance, but more is needed.

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Any lingering concerns about sensitive material being disclosed can be handled by using the best practices of local governments and other state agencies. They routinely handle sensitive information and know to use the numerous Records-Act exemptions to prevent disclosure of confidential material, such as medical records, criminal investigations and bank-account details.

Additional training and staff may be needed to handle records requests, but the issue is settled. As the court decisively ruled, it’s simply time for legislators to follow the law.