Washington Legislature argues most records exempt under law

November 18, 2017

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Attorneys for the Washington Legislature argued in a filing Friday that lawmakers pointedly exempted most of their records from the state’s public records act decades ago and therefore are not violating the law.

In a cross motion filing in response to a lawsuit filed in September by a coalition of news organizations led by The Associated Press, the attorneys point to the evolving definition of what an “agency” is as defined by the act. They write that it “was deliberately clarified by the Legislature to exclude the terms “public officials” or “legislative offices.”

The attorneys write that under various changes to the law over the years, the Legislature and its elected members “are treated uniquely.”

“They are not state agencies fully subject to the act,” the filing reads.

The attorneys argue that based on the “plain meaning” of current law, the House and Senate are not required to turn over lawmaker emails and calendars, or harassment complaints, all which had been sought by multiple news organizations.

The news coalition, which sued in September, is challenging the assertion that lawmakers are excluded from the stricter disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials and agencies.

“It seems that they’re grasping at a way to exempt themselves from a law that was clearly meant to apply to them,” said Michele-Earl Hubbard, an attorney for the media coalition. She argued that if the Legislature had indeed done what they say, “we would have known that, everyone would have known that. People would have appeared and objected to that.”

“They never made clear that’s what they were doing,” she said Friday.

The Legislature has hired two outside firms to represent it in the case: Seattle-based Pacifica Law Group, which has assigned three attorneys to the case, including Gov. Jay Inslee’s former counsel, Nick Brown, and Olympia-based Bean, Gentry, Wheeler & Peternell, which has assigned former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.

They argued that “there is nothing inherently wrong or nefarious about the Legislature establishing specifications for how the PRA applies to its chambers.”

“Consistent with the principles of separation of powers, the State constitution leaves internal operations of the Legislature to the Legislature,” the filing reads.

The attorneys also note that the state Supreme Court has previously ruled the judiciary is exempt.

“Like the judiciary, the Legislature is a branch of government, not simply a state agency,” they wrote.

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 next hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 22 in Thurston County Superior Court.

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