Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese (right) speaks in court on Friday in Olympia. He ruled that the records of individual Washington state lawmakers are subject to public disclosure. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese (right) speaks in court on Friday in Olympia. He ruled that the records of individual Washington state lawmakers are subject to public disclosure. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Judge: Lawmakers’ emails, texts subject to public disclosure

News organizations had sued to challenge the Legislature’s claim that members were exempt.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A big decision for Boeing’s next CEO: Is it time for a new plane?

As Boeing faces increased competition from Airbus, the company is expected to appoint a new CEO by the end of the year.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Two workers walk past a train following a press event at the Lynnwood City Center Link Station on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Trains up and running on Lynnwood Link — but no passengers quite yet

Officials held an event at the Lynnwood station announcing the start of “pre-revenue” service. Passengers still have to wait till August.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

Left to right, Everett Pride board members Ashley Turner, Bryce Laake, and Kevin Daniels pose for a photo at South Fork Bakery in Everett, Washington on Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Second Everett Pride aims for even bigger rainbow of festivities

Organizers estimated about 3,000 people attended the first block party in Everett. This year, they’re aiming for 10,000.

A Boeing 737 MAX 9 airplane test its engines outside of the company's factory on March 11, 2019 in Renton, Washington. Boeing's stock dropped today after an Ethiopian Airlines flight was the second deadly crash in six months involving the Boeing 737 Max 8, the newest version of its most popular jetliner. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images/TNS)
Boeing lost track of up to 400 faulty 737 Max parts, whistleblower says

The claims were detailed in a Boeing inspector’s complaint on June 11 and made public by a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.

Ryan Stalkfleet, left to right, and Kenny Hauge, members of the OceanGate submersible crew, explains the vehicles features and operations to Bill McFerren and Kiely McFerren Thursday afternoon at the Port of Everett on December 16, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Everett sub disaster forces global rethinking of deep sea exploration

A year after the OceanGate disaster, an industry wrestles with new challenges for piloted submersibles and robotic explorers.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 squeeze starts now between Everett, Marysville

Following a full closure for a night, starting late Sunday, Highway 529 will slim down to two lanes for months near the Snohomish River Bridge.

People board the Mukilteo ferry in Mukilteo, Washington on Monday, June 3, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Washington’s ferry system steers toward less choppy waters

Hiring increases and steps toward adding boats to the state’s fleet are positive developments for the troubled agency.

Dave Calhoun speaks during a 2017 interview in New York. (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg)
Boeing CEO apologizes for quality and safety issues at Senate hearing

Before the Tuesday hearing, a congressional subcommittee accused Boeing of mismanaging parts and cutting quality inspections.

School board members listen to public comment during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. Rinehardt is seated third from left. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Marysville school board president resigns amid turmoil

Wade Rinehardt’s resignation, announced at Monday’s school board meeting, continues a string of tumultuous news in the district.

A BNSF train crosses Grove St/72nd St, NE in Marysville, Washington on March 17, 2022. Marysville recently got funding for design work for an overcrossing at the intersection. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
BNSF owes nearly $400M to Washington tribe, judge rules

A federal judge ruled last year that the railroad trespassed as it sent trains carrying crude oil through the Swinomish Reservation.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.