The Legislature argued that it was exempt from the state Public Records Act, and allowed state lawmakers to withhold their emails and correspondence, work calendars, complaints made against elected officials and other documents.
OLYMPIA — Washington state lawmakers are subject to public records laws, a Thurston County Superior Court Judge ruled Friday.
Judge Chris Lanese found that legislative leaders violated Washington’s Public Records Act by declining requests for records.
“The plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives …,” Lanese wrote in his ruling. However, the law does not apply to the administrative offices of the state Senate and House, the judge ruled.
Although an appeal is likely, the ruling is a major step in a lawsuit that aims to end the decades-long practice of legislators withholding records from the public that local governments, state agencies and the governor’s office routinely release.
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Under the ruling, records such as lawmakers’ emails, work calendars and staff complaints involving legislators are subject to public disclosure. Lawmakers have long claimed those records are exempt from release.
“Obviously we disagree with the court’s order indicating that individual legislators are subject to the act,” said Paul Lawrence, one of the Legislature’s attorneys.
Lanese’s ruling came in a suit brought in September by 10 news organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times, that challenged the Legislature’s exemption.
As part of the legal challenge, the news organizations filed requests for records from all 147 Washington lawmakers. Among the records being sought are any complaints of sexual harassment against legislators.
Last April, a report by The Seattle Times and the Northwest News Network detailed how legislative leaders use their exemption to keep documents from the public.
The two news organizations requested emails and work calendars from four legislative leaders — all of whom declined to release the documents.
Some lawmakers, however, have argued that their records should be more transparent — and have waived the exemption to voluntarily release documents.
The Legislature has made a series of changes to the state’s Public Records Act in the decades since it was passed by voter initiative in 1972.
The media’s lawsuit focuses on how lawmakers have interpreted a 1995 revision to a 1971 definition of legislative records. Lawyers for the Legislature have regularly cited that change as a reason to withhold records.
The attorneys further argued that later changes in 2005 and 2007 definitively removed lawmakers from disclosure requirements.
Part of the argument revolves around the definition of “agencies” and whether that applies to lawmakers and to the Legislature’s administrative offices.
Lanese said the Legislature’s 2005 and 2007 amendments actually underscored that lawmakers should be subject to public disclosure.
“In short, rather than furthering the Defendants’ arguments, the amendments to the Public Records Act over time confirm that it applies to the offices of senators and representatives as ‘agencies,’ ” Lanese wrote.
Administrative offices for the House and Senate, however, aren’t subject to the records act, the judge said.
The Legislature has spent at least $56,000 to hire four private attorneys to defend against the lawsuit.
The cost to taxpayers could potentially run tens of thousands of dollars higher, as billing statements haven’t all been submitted for recent legal work on the case.
Speaking Friday at the hearing, Lanese also weighed in on the objection by the Legislature’s attorneys to a friend-of-the-court brief issued by the Attorney General’s Office. The attorneys said it was a conflict of interest for the Attorney General’s Office, which represents state agencies, to take a position in the case.
The brief, which Lanese had requested, argued the Public Records Act should apply to lawmakers and the House and Senate administrative offices.
“In no way, shape or form is there a conflict of interest in this case, with respect to the Attorney General filing the amicus brief in this matter,” Lanese said.
Lanese set a hearing for March 9 to discuss next steps, which could include the date records would have to be released, assuming no appeal had been filed by that point.
Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney for the media coalition, noted the ruling was just a first step, “but it’s a huge first step.”
Besides AP and The Seattle Times, the media groups involved in the lawsuit are: public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Sound Publishing and Tacoma News Inc.