Supreme Court sets date for legislative records case hearing

February 25, 2019

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in June in a case that will determine whether state lawmakers are subject to the same disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials.

The high court on Monday set a June 11 date for the hearing in the case that was sparked by a September 2017 lawsuit filed by a media coalition, led by The Associated Press. The coalition has argued that lawmakers have been violating the law by not releasing emails, schedules and reports of sexual harassment. Lawmakers have long argued they are not subject to the voter-approved Public Records Act.

In January 2018, a Thurston County superior court judge ruled that while the Washington Legislature, the House and Senate were not subject to the Public Records Act, the statute was clear that the offices of individual lawmakers were covered by the law. The case was appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.

Shortly after last year’s superior court ruling, lawmakers moved quickly to change the law to retroactively specify that the Public Records Act did not apply to the legislative branch. Lawmakers introduced and passed the bill — which allowed for a more limited legislative disclosure obligation for things like daily calendars and correspondence with lobbyists — in two days, but after a large public outcry, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the measure.

This year, ahead of the anticipated Supreme Court hearing, a handful of bills have been introduced seeking legislative transparency, with limits. A Senate bill died in committee after media representatives and open government advocates argued against the measure, which sought several exemptions for what the legislative branch needs to release under the law.

Two House bills introduced since then, one by Democrats, one by Republicans, would limit the timeframe of records that could be released. One of the measures , sponsored by several House Republicans, allows for the release of records since the Jan. 19, 2018 superior court ruling, but exempts all records from before then. The Republican measure also grants exemptions that don’t exist for other elected officials and agencies under the current law: the personal identifying information of constituents who contact their office and a permanent exemption to some preliminary drafts, notes or inter-legislative communication.

The other measure , introduced by several House Democrats, would allow for the release of legislative records going forward, but past documents wouldn’t be released. Neither were scheduled for public hearings, and a key committee deadline for bills was last week. After the sponsor of the Senate bill said his bill was dead, legislative leaders didn’t appear enthused to take additional action ahead of a ruling by the Supreme Court.

Before suing, the news organizations filed requests for records from all 147 Washington lawmakers in 2017, including daily schedules, text messages and emails related to legislative duties, and any documentation of sexual harassment complaints against House and Senate members.

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.

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