Washington Supreme Court rules state lawmakers are subject to public disclosure law

Dec 19, 2019

In a 7-to-2 decision, the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that individual state lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act (PRA) and therefore must disclose records such as emails and calendars. 

In doing so, the high court upheld a lower court ruling and delivered a significant victory to media outlets that sued over access to lawmaker records. 

The public radio Northwest News Network was a plaintiff in the lawsuit which was led by the Associated Press. 

The high court also upheld the lower court’s finding that the House and Senate, as legislative bodies, are not state agencies and therefore are bound by a narrower public disclosure mandate. That mandate requires them to disclose such items as budget, financial and payroll records. 

“We hold that under the plain meaning of the PRA, individual legislators are ‘agencies’ subject in full to the PRA’s general public disclosure mandate because they are expressly included in the definitional chain of ‘agency’ in a closely related statute,” wrote Justice Susan Owens in the lead opinion.

The news organizations filed the lawsuit after reporters made 163 public records requests to lawmakers and the House and Senate during a six month period in 2017. In response, lawyers for both chambers generally denied the requests and, in doing so, claimed the Legislature and individual lawmakers were exempt from the voter-approved disclosure law.

In some cases, individual legislators voluntarily released limited records.

In September 2017, the media coalition filed its lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court arguing the lawmakers were violating the law by withholding records.

Lawyers for the legislative branch countered that lawmakers and the House and Senate are not state agencies as defined by the public records law and are therefore largely exempt from having to disclose records.

The Washington Attorney General’s office, in a friend of the court brief, essentially split the difference and argued that while individual legislative offices are agencies, the legislative bodies themselves are not.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese agreed with the Attorney General’s analysis and ruled as such in January 2018, prompting both sides to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In her lead opinion, Owens wrote that “individual legislators’ offices are obliged to disclose upon request all public records not otherwise exempted from public inspection.”

Also signing the lead opinion were Justices Mary Fairhurst, Barbara Madsen and Charlie Wiggins.

In a separate opinion, Justice Debra Stephens disagreed that the Legislature as a whole is not a state agency for purposes of the PRA.

“In point of fact, the legislature has tried to exempt itself, but failed,” Stephens wrote in her partial dissent. Justices Charles Johnson and Mary Yu signed onto Stephens opinion.

In a third opinion, Justice Gordon McCloud dissented from her colleagues on the question of whether individual lawmakers are agencies for purposes of the public disclosure act.

“That logic would make countless individual state employees their own ‘agencies’ separate and apart from the state agencies that employ them,” McCloud wrote in her partial dissent which was also signed by Justice Steven Gonzalez.

In a statement shortly after the ruling was published, House Speaker-Designate Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat, said: “House Democrats believe in open and accountable government. While we have already taken action toward better access to public records, we have more work to do.”

Jinkins went on to say that the House was still reviewing the court’s decision, but would be working with the Senate on a plan to implement the decision “to ensure transparency in government for Washingtonians.”

In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill that lawmakers passed that explicitly exempted the legislative branch from the PRA. The veto came after a forceful backlash from the public and the media. In a letter, 16 state Senate Democrats acknowledged “we made a mistake” by fast-tracking the bill and not holding public hearings. 

Washington's Public Records Act, first enacted by voters in 1972, applies to state and local elected officials and governments.