Washingtonians have spoken on keeping government open. Supreme Court must listen

It is the height of arrogance that Washington legislators believe they’re above the Public Records Act, the playbook of government openness and accountability adopted by state voters nearly 50 years ago.

It is the height of sloppiness that legislators through the years did a poor job communicating their intent to be free from the 1972 law — a prerogative they claim to have given themselves through several PRA amendments going back more than a decade.

That first point, about arrogance, has been trumpeted by this Editorial Board and a broad Washington news media coalition, led by the Associated Press, for two years. We went to court arguing the Legislature must disclose a broad range of records. A Thurston County judge heard our case, and we won. Now the Legislature wants the state Supreme Court to reverse the part of the ruling that said the 147 individual lawmakers and their offices are subject to the records law.

That second point, about sloppiness, was one of our takeaways from a crucial hearing Tuesday before the Supreme Court. While trying to change the law more than a decade ago, legislators included vaguely worded definitions — or none, in some cases — that left unclear what constitutes a “state agency.”

The Legislature’s attorney said in oral arguments Tuesday that a plain reading of PRA amendments shows lawmakers meant to give themselves immunity. But Justice Steven Gonzalez was skeptical.

“If it was so plain, why didn’t the Legislature just say ‘this doesn’t apply to us’?” Gonzalez asked. “Clearly it’s been confusing to people who have tried to construe what it means after the fact.”

Clearly he’s right. Bottom line: Lawmakers shouldn’t have messed with our venerable good-government law. The old adage applies: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Admittedly, it’s hard to predict how the court will rule. On Tuesday, justices also grilled the media coalition’s attorney, while four of the nine court members said nothing.

Still, it’s notable that Gonzalez wasn’t the only one on the bench to poke at the underpinnings of the legislative-immunity argument. Justice Debra Stephens pointed out that the judicial branch is already exempt from the PRA. So if the high court blesses giving similar discretion to legislators, then wouldn’t the law’s reach be limited to the executive branch? “That’s essentially the end result of your argument,” Stephens told the Legislature’s attorney.

In our view, the court blew it when it shielded the judicial branch from the law 10 years ago; it shouldn’t compound that mistake by making it easier for legislators to keep secrets.

The Legislature should have to obey the same rules as state agencies, city and county governments and school boards. Citizens ought to be able to see emails, text messages, misconduct investigations and other materials that legislators prefer to keep under wraps.

There’s no question where the court of public opinion comes down. “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them,” reads a key line from the PRA, which voters approved by a wide margin. And this isn’t just some quaint sentiment from the Watergate era.

Two winters ago, when citizens repelled a sneak attack on their right to know, they showed openness remains a value worth fighting for. Legislative leaders had quietly rammed a blanket public-records exemption through the House and Senate. But news outlets including the TNT blew the whistle, and thousands of emails and calls poured into Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, urging him to veto the bill, which he did.

So yes, the people have spoken, and we hope their voices ring in the Supreme Court’s ears.

The court’s first duty is to serve as neutral interpreters of Washington’s constitution and laws. As part of that, it’s appropriate for justices to examine changes the Legislature has made to the PRA.

But justices also stand for election every six years, which is our state’s way of making them answerable to the public.

“The people were the first legislators,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, the media coalition attorney. “It is their will and their intent that should be honored.”

By the time lawmakers reconvene in 2020, we hope the Supreme Court will have issued a decision — one that doesn’t reward arrogance and sloppiness, but instead honors the will and intent expressed in the Washington Public Records Act.