OLYMPIA — The emails, text messages and other information from Washington state lawmakers are subject to public disclosure, a judge said Friday as he ruled in favor of a media coalition led by The Associated Press.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese sided with the group that sued in September, challenging the Washington Legislature’s assertion that lawmakers are excluded from stricter disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials and agencies.
While Lanese said the offices of individual lawmakers are subject to the public records act, the Washington Legislature, the House and Senate were not.
But regarding the individual lawmakers named, Lanese said the statute was clear.
The law “literally says that representatives and senators and their offices are agencies under the public records act,” he said from the bench. “The defendants have raised many different arguments contending that that is incorrect in this case. However none of the arguments advanced by the defendants here can escape the fact that the plain and unambiguous language of the statute literally has a definitional chain that goes from agencies to state agencies to state offices to state legislative offices.”
He noted lawmakers can always amend the law, but unless they do they are subject to the state’s public records law.
Attorneys for the Legislature had argued that lawmakers exempted most of their records from the state’s public records act through a series of changes in past years and therefore were not violating the law passed by voter initiative in 1972.
The media’s lawsuit focused on how lawmakers interpreted a 1995 revision to a 1971 definition of legislative records. Legislative lawyers have regularly cited that change as a reason to withhold records.
Separate legislative attorneys hired for this case have further argued that later changes in 2005 and 2007 definitively removed lawmakers from disclosure requirements.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision that records of state lawmakers are in fact subject to public disclosure,” said AP’s deputy managing editor for U.S. news, Noreen Gillespie. “Today’s ruling is a victory for the public — allowing the people to know what their elected officials are doing behind closed doors.”
When told of the outcome, two Snohomish County lawmakers said they’re prepared to abide by the decision.
“I learned to live with it,” said Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, who was that city’s mayor before arriving in the state House in September. “I am sorry that for my colleagues it may mean they are going to have to do business a little differently. I won’t be doing anything different than I had been.”
Said state Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, who is in his second year in the Legislature: “I am of the mindset that we should craft a bill that subjects us to the Public Records Act like local government but also takes care of some legitimate privacy issues.”
Constituents sometimes email lawmakers on personal matters that are not connected with legislation, and it would be wrong to expose those to the public, he said.
He also said any bill needs to ensure that lobbyists aren’t able to use the law to obtain drafts of bills and amendments that a lawmaker might be working on with staff.
“If they can get records in real time, it will only increase their power,” he said.
The news organizations, which included Daily Herald parent Sound Publishing, filed requests for records from all 147 Washington lawmakers last year, including daily calendars, text messages and documentation of staff complaints against House and Senate members.
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. But Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the Legislature, said an appeal was likely.
“We disagree with the court’s order,” Lawrence said after the ruling.
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 The AP and The Herald, the groups involved in the lawsuit are public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO-TV, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.
Herald Olympia reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed.