Hide and seek is a fun game when played by kids in a park on a summer afternoon. It’s the opposite of fun, and hardly a game, when played by elusive Washington legislators who duck the rules of disclosure while hiding behind a bad interpretation of state public records law.
For years, journalists have been seeking the release of records that shed light on how state lawmakers conduct the public’s business, for instance, who they’re talking to, what promises they make and when they do things the public may not like.
For just as long, legislators preferred to conceal their activities and their communications.
But last week, a judge ordered them to come out of hiding by ruling they were subject to public disclosure laws.
The ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese is a resounding victory for the public’s right to know. Other officials at all layers of government must comply with the Public Records Act, from town and city council members all the way up to the governor.
Only legislators claimed they were exempt, though they used a tortured reading of the 1972 law and later amendments to construct that fiction.
Friday’s ruling would have brought ordinary people back to earth; but lawmakers get to use your money — not theirs — to continue the right. So they doubled down and Monday appealed directly to the State Supreme Court, skipping the Court of Appeals.
This latest legal maneuver squanders more taxpayer money and deepens public distrust. It does nothing to still suspicions that legislators have something to hide.
The appeal boils down to a running turf battle. Lawmakers don’t like the public or judges second-guessing them. That’s obvious to anyone who’s followed their years-long, back-and-forth responses to the Supreme Court’s McCleary school-funding order.
Indeed, Lanese agreed “this case presents separation of powers issues.” But he also said separation of powers requires upholding the plain meaning of a law, and that Washington’s 46-year-old Public Records Act is unequivocal.
Last year, The News Tribune, The Associated Press and other Washington news organizations sued the House, Senate and all 147 legislators and caucus leaders — for release of records including personal calendars, emails, complaints and investigative reports. The defendants made the mistake of fighting for continued suppression, spending more than $50,000 on private attorneys (so far).
This self-serving disparity in open government practices needs to stop. As the Greek tragedian Sophocles warned: “Do nothing secretly; for time sees and hears all things, and discloses all.”
Among the weak arguments that fell flat with the judge: that caucus leaders should be dismissed from the lawsuit because it referred to them by title — Senate majority leader, for example — instead of as a senator. Lanese said this “has no bearing on any substance in this case.”
In a ringing endorsement of government transparency, he concluded that lawmakers are “subject to the Public Records Act as ‘agencies’ under the plain and unambiguous meaning of the law and have violated the Public Records Act by failing to respond to the Plaintiffs’ public records requests as such.”
We believe appellate courts should reach the same conclusion. And if the opinion of a lower-court isn’t enough to convince lawmakers, they should listen to the state’s top lawyer. Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office took the rare step of filing a brief against legislators — they’re usually his clients — saying the history of public records law clearly points to full disclosure.
It’s time for the Legislature to act like they work for the people, not the other way around. Leave hide and seek for the children.