OLYMPIA – Individual legislators and their offices are subject to the Public Records Act and cannot refuse to release many of the documents they generate or receive, a Thurston County Superior Court judge said Friday.
The Legislature, the Senate and the House of Representatives are separate entities and have some exemptions under the law, Judge Chris Lanese said. But legislators’ offices are “state agencies” and don’t have those exemptions.
“Courts presume the Legislature says what it means, and means what it says,” Lanese said in handing down a summary judgment. “That is the law. That is what the Legislature said.”
News organizations led by the Associated Press and including The Spokesman-Review sued the Legislature last year after requests for documents sent to all 147 lawmakers and their leaders were mostly denied. Reporters requested records including calendar entries, text messages related to legislative duties and complaints and investigative reports regarding claims of improper conduct.
Lawmakers argued records are forwarded to the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate, which are exempt from the Public Records Act under changes they made to the voter-approved law in 1995, 2005 and 2007.
Lanese’s ruling sides with news organizations on their contention that the individual lawmakers’ offices can’t keep records secret, but with legislators in their contention that the House clerk and the Senate secretary are exempt.
The records requested from the individual lawmakers’ offices will not be immediately released because either side could appeal Lanese’s ruling, and the final decision is expected to be made by the state Supreme Court.
About the time the judge was announcing his ruling, Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, introduced a bill to amend the Public Records Act to open most legislative records.
“Washingtonians deserve to know who influences their legislators and who their elected representatives meet with about the public’s business,” Pollet said in a news release announcing the bill. “While some protections are warranted, the blanket protection the Legislature has afforded itself should end.”
Legislators hired private attorneys to defend themselves against the news organizations’ lawsuit. Before announcing his ruling, Lanese criticized lawmakers’ lawyers for objecting to a friend of the court brief filed by the state Attorney General’s office, arguing it was a conflict of interest for that office to get involved.
That brief essentially agreed with Lanese that the individual legislator’s office were state agencies and not exempt from the Public Records Act.
A conflict of interest claim is a serious allegation to make and “wholly without merit,” the judge said.
The office has the authority to act in any court on a matter of public concern, Lanese said. It also was responding to a request from the judge to weigh in on the case.
Asked for a comment on the ruling Friday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee said he hasn’t had time to study the ruling. But he suggested the Legislature could follow his office and the executive branch and be open with records.
“We have found a way to make this work,” he said.
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