The justices heard arguments in June on the appeal of a case that was sparked by a September 2017 lawsuit filed by a media coalition led by The Associated Press. It sought sexual harassment reports, calendar entries and other documents.
Lawmakers have long said they are not subject to the law that applies to officials across the state, from school board members and county commissioners to agency heads. Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney for the media coalition, called the ruling a “huge win.”
“We have been hitting a brick wall for more than a decade where lawmakers have been arguing that somehow different rules applied to them,” she said. “We have now proven that’s not true. It was never true.”
The Supreme Court affirmed a Thurston County superior court judge's ruling in January 2018 that found while the offices of individual lawmakers are subject to the Public Records Act, the House and Senate as a whole are not. The Legislature appealed the portion of the ruling that applies to the legislative offices, and the media outlets appealed the part that applies to the House and Senate.
Following the 2018 decision, lawmakers quickly passed a bill that retroactively exempted them from the law but would have allowed for more limited legislative disclosure for things like daily calendars and correspondence with lobbyists. After a public outcry, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the measure.
While the media won its argument that individual lawmakers must release records, a majority of the Supreme Court justices agreed with the superior court that the disclosure law applies to the entities of the House and the Senate, through the House clerk and secretary of the Senate, in a much more limited way.
The Legislature has made a series of changes to the law, and lawyers for the House and Senate have regularly cited a 1995 revision to a 1971 definition of legislative records in their denials. The House and Senate currently release limited records, including travel, and payroll records and reports to the Legislature.
Attorneys for the Legislature had argued that changes in 2005 and 2007 — when the public-records act’s language and definitions were incorporated into a statute separate from the campaign-finance portions of the original initiative — definitively removed lawmakers from disclosure requirements.
The Legislature, which normally would be represented by the attorney general’s office, chose instead to use two private law firms, paying about $350,000. The attorney general’s office filed a brief before the high court stating that each lawmaker is fully subject to the public disclosure law, but that the House and Senate are subject in a more limited manner. They said the law specifically defines which records must be made available for release by the House and Senate.
In a statement issued after the ruling, House Speaker-designate Laurie Jinkins said that her caucus was still reviewing the decision but believes “in open and accountable government." “While we have already taken action toward better access to public records, we have more work to do,” she wrote.
Twenty news and open government groups signed on to three briefs in support of the media coalition, including the Washington Coalition for Open Government, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders and the Society of Professional Journalists.
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, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.
The case now heads back to the lower court for further proceedings, including determination of potential penalties and fees.