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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Troubling ruling will limit access

The Spokesman-Review

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The (Olympia) Olympian. It does not necessarily reflect the views of The Spokesman-Review editorial board.

Public access to government records just became harder in Washington, based on a disturbing ruling by the state Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision, the majority opinion missed the mark, blowing a huge hole in the state Public Disclosure Act as a citizen tool for ensuring open government.

Not one but two decisions by the sharply divided court will restrict access to information that the public has a right to see.

The court ruled in Hangartner v. City of Seattle that a public agency can use the “attorney-client privilege” to keep public records secret. The case involved a request for public records related to Sound Transit’s light rail project in Seattle.

Imagine how easy it will be to abuse this new-found privilege: Government agency officials, in possession of a document that they don’t want to see the light of day, simply show it to their legal counsel and, with the blessing of the Supreme Court ruling, it becomes a secret document.

Adding insult to injury, the Supreme Court also ruled that a citizen’s request for public records can be denied if the request is too large or not specific enough.

This gives the keeper of the public records far too much discretion in what it makes public and what it withholds.

There is another problem with the public-records request guidelines: If the requestor does not know what records exist, it is next to impossible to make a specific request for information.

The attorney-client privilege is designed to protect lawyers from having to betray their client’s secrets.

Now, with the Supreme Court ruling in hand, government agencies can keep public records secret when, in fact, the public is the client the agencies are supposed to be serving …

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