A recent Washington State Supreme Court ruling shows that the Legislature has some long overdue housecleaning to attend to. It shouldn’t be difficult, which makes it all the more puzzling why this mess was ignored for 23 years.
The court affirmed two lower court rulings that the administrative records of the courts are exempt from the state’s public records act. The case began when David Koenig, of Federal Way, requested all of the records pertaining to the controversy involving Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Colleen Hartl, who resigned and was censured over a sexual relationship with a public defender who sometimes appeared in her court. The court turned over 183 pages of documents, but it withheld the correspondence between Hartl and her supervisor, Municipal Court Judge Michael Morgan.
If Hartl and Morgan had worked for any other agency, the correspondence would have been released. But a 1986 state Supreme Court ruling said that courts were exempted from the public records act, because the statute defined a “state agency” as a “state office, department, division, bureau, board, commission or other state agency.” In addition, the court ruled that local courts are also exempt, because “local agency” is defined as a “county, city, town, municipal corporation, quasi-municipal corporation, or any special purpose district, or any office, department, division, bureau, board, commission or agency thereof, or other local public agency.”
The Supreme Court deferred to that decision last Friday with a 7-2 decision.
Critics can quibble with the strict interpretation of the statute, but this is the second time the courts have been ruled exempt.
Writing for the majority, Justice Susan Owens made it clear what needs to be done when she wrote that the Legislature has “acquiesced” to the 1986 ruling by not acting.
There is no good reason for the exception. Keeping it in place makes it difficult for the public to hold court officials accountable. The Legislature needs to amend the law to state explicitly that courts fall under its purview.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a former legislator, told the Associated Press that his group would lobby for the change.
“I think that the Legislature is going to agree with this,” Nixon said. “I can’t imagine that the Legislature would believe the kind of records that were involved in the David Koenig case should be kept from the public.”
We can’t either.