Washington Supreme Court to decide legislative records case

A ruling signed Tuesday says the case can skip the Court of Appeals and go straight to the justices.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court will decide whether Washington’s voter-approved Public Records Act applies to lawmakers.

Supreme Court Commissioner Michael Johnston signed a ruling Tuesday saying the case can skip the Court of Appeals and go straight to the justices for a decision on whether state lawmakers are subject to the same public disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials and agencies.

A media coalition led by The Associated Press sued last year, arguing that lawmakers had illegally been withholding documents like daily calendars, emails, and reports of sexual harassment.

In January, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese sided largely with the news organizations, saying individual lawmakers and their offices are “agencies” under the Public Records Act; he ruled the Washington Legislature, the House and Senate were not. The Legislature appealed the former determination, while the news organizations appealed the latter.

Johnston wrote that even if the case had first gone to the Court of Appeals, it would have ultimately ended up before the Supreme Court, and “a prompt review of these legal issues will likely save judicial resources in the long run.”

“And whether the Public Records Act applies to the legislative branch, including individual legislators, is arguably ‘a fundamental and urgent issue of broad public import which requires prompt and ultimate determination’ in this court,” he wrote.

About a month after Lanese’s ruling, lawmakers moved quickly to pass a bill that would have retroactively exempted them from the law while allowing for more limited disclosure of some records.

Following a public backlash, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the measure after legislators agreed not to override his action. Lawmakers have said they will look to craft a new bill next year based on recommendation from a task force that has not yet been formed. The next legislative session begins in January.

Besides AP, the 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 (which owns The Daily Herald), Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.

A hearing date before the nine-member court has not yet been set.

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