Washington state lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act, a Thurston County judge ruled Friday in a case brought by the Associated Press, The News Tribune and other news outlets.
Judge Chris Lanese rejected arguments by attorneys representing state representatives and senators, who wished to keep their emails, calendars and other records exempt from disclosure, including complaints of personal misconduct.
Lanese ruled that individual defendants in case, meaning state lawmakers, “have violated the Public Records Act” by refusing to disclose records sought by media outlets.
The debate is far from over and might be headed for the state Supreme Court, but Lanese’s decision marks a seismic moment in the history of state public records law. For decades, state legislators have resisted disclosure laws that apply to all other elected officials, from council members in tiny towns all the way to the governor’s office.
“A huge victory,” said Michelle Earl-Hubbard, attorney for the media organizations. “For 20 years we've been saying the individual legislators were subject to the (Public Records) Act.”
Paul Lawrence, one of the private attorneys hired by state House and Senate leaders, said his clients will meet in the coming days to discuss a potential appeal.
“Obviously we disagree with the court’s order,” he said.
Lanese’s 28-page ruling dispensed with the key argument offered by legislators: that their offices don’t fit the legal definition of “agencies” under state law. The wordplay was “without merit,” according to his ruling.
“State legislative offices — including the individual defendants — are ‘agencies’ under the plain and unambiguous meaning of the Public Records Act,” the ruling states.
Lanese also addressed a minor subplot in the legal drama, sweeping aside complaints from legislators and their lawyers regarding state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. At the outset of the case, lawmakers chose to hire outside attorneys to defend the case, rather than Ferguson’s office.
At a hearing in December, Lanese asked Ferguson’s office to file a friend-of-court brief on the disclosure issue, a common practice in matters involving state law. The subsequent brief from Ferguson’s office concluded that state lawmakers were subject to the disclosure law, undercutting the case legislators were making.
Chippy back-and-forth correspondence between legislators and Ferguson followed, along with a belated effort to add his staff to the legislators’ legal team. Ferguson said that was no longer possible. Attorneys for the lawmakers then filed briefs suggesting that Ferguson’s office faced a conflict of interest.
Lanese swept that argument aside Monday, calling it “wholly without merit.”
The judge added that if lawmakers don’t like the law as it stands, they can change it.
“If the Legislature disagrees, it can say something different by amending the law,” he wrote.
The immediate effect of the judge’s ruling is limited. It won’t lead to immediate disclosure or legal penalties. Mindful of an appeal, Lanese scheduled a status conference with the parties on March 9, where next steps will be discussed.