OLYMPIA – The Washington Attorney General’s office said Wednesday that state lawmakers are subject to the same rules of disclosure that cover other elected officials and employees at state agencies.
The contention was made by two deputy solicitors general for Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a court filing Wednesday. The 14-page amicus brief notes that the state’s public records act is broad, covering every state office, department, division and commission, among others. “Individual legislative offices, their officers and employees, and other legislative agencies plainly fall within this broad coverage,” deputy solicitors general Alan Copsey and Callie Castillo wrote.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese had asked Ferguson’s office to weigh in as Lanese prepares to rule on a case brought by a coalition of news organizations challenging lawmakers’ assertion that they are not subject to more stringent public disclosure.
The coalition, led by the Associated Press and including The Spokesman-Review, sued in September after making requests of all 147 members of the Legislature, seeking records ranging from work emails to daily calendars. A handful of lawmakers voluntarily released some of what was sought, but legislative lawyers denied requests for the remainder. The Legislature – which normally would be represented by the attorney general’s office – has been using two private law firms to represent it in the case.
The state’s public records act was passed by voter initiative in 1972. The Legislature has made a series of changes to it in the decades since, and the lawsuit focuses on how lawmakers have come to interpret a 1995 revision to a 1971 definition of legislative records. Lawyers for the House and Senate have regularly cited that change as a reason to withhold records.
Attorneys for the Legislature have further argued that later changes in 2005 and 2007, when the public records act’s language and definitions were incorporated into a separate state statute separate from the campaign finance portions of the original initiative, lawmakers were definitively removed from disclosure requirements.
But the attorney general’s office disputes that, saying that from 1995 to 2007 “the PRA explicitly covered state legislative offices along with all other “state offices.” Wednesday’s filing further states that from 2007 to present those offices have continued to be covered.
“While Defendants assert this definition deliberately excludes “legislative offices,” there is no support for such an assertion, especially when the entire history of the Act and related laws are considered,” the filing reads.
Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the Legislature, said in an email that the attorney general’s position on lawmakers being subject to disclosure “is contrary to text and history of the Act and contrary to the historical position taken by the AG in the past.”
“Moreover, the Legislature believes that it was inappropriate for the AG to file an amicus in this case in light of the significant conflict of interest as a result of the ongoing representation of the Legislature as a client of the AG,” he wrote.
Besides AP and the S-R, the groups involved in the lawsuit are: public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Sound Publishing, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times. A ruling in the case is set for Jan. 19.