Memo to Washington legislators: Your job isn’t unique like you’ve been led to believe, and you’re not as special as you may think you are. It’s past time to surrender to the open-government law established by state voters nearly 50 years ago. You’ve been ducking and dodging it long enough.
That’s our interpretation of what the Washington Supreme Court said in a landmark decision Thursday, stripped of legalese and boiled down to its essence.
The ruling in the public-records case, brought by a coalition of news organizations, including The News Tribune, didn’t deliver a knockout punch to the Legislature’s claims of exceptionalism. But it dealt a powerful blow on behalf of the people’s right to know how elected leaders are handling the people’s business and spending their money.
Other government agencies — cities, counties, school boards, fire districts and state executive branch departments, to name a few -- have fulfilled their disclosure duties under Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA) for many years.
The high court, in its 7-2 ruling, put Washington’s 147 legislators on notice that they don’t enjoy special immunity from that venerable 1972 law.
“We conclude that individual legislators’ offices are plainly and unambiguously ‘agencies’ for purposes of the PRA,” said the majority opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens.
Now House and Senate leaders have a plain, unambiguous choice.
They can accept the ruling gracefully, pledge full compliance and quickly release a trove of records, such as work emails and personal calendars, requested by journalists two years ago.
Or they can double down on the secrecy and hubris that brought them to this point, trying again to enact legislation that would upend the PRA and shield records from public view.
Is it really possible that elected leaders would take the latter course? That they would magnify public mistrust and inflame suspicions that they have something to hide?
We hope not. But Washingtonians should demand their elected representatives do the right thing.
The people must be as vigilant as they were two winters ago, when caucus leaders in Olympia tried to sneak through a bill to exempt legislators from a strict reading of the PRA. Citizens must be ready to raise their voices like they did at that time, when they lit up Gov. Jay Inslee’s phone lines and pleaded for him to veto the exemption.
The case that reached the end of the line this week was initiated in 2017 by a media coalition led by the Associated Press. In January 2018, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese laid down an important marker; he ruled that individual legislators are subject to the PRA, despite a series of changes the Legislature made to the law in the last few decades.
And yet the hide-and-seek game went on. Legislators’ long-term strategy was to appeal Lanese’s ruling directly to the Supreme Court. Their short-term play was to brazenly approve the exemption bill that Inslee ultimately vetoed.
Make no mistake, the public scored a big victory for transparency with this week’s Supreme Court decision, which hewed closely to Lanese’s ruling.
As noted earlier, however, it wasn’t a knockout punch. While the justices ruled that individual legislators must yield to the general mandate to disclose records, they added that the House and Senate as institutions don’t have to comply.
This might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s not. It means some public records that don’t belong to lawmakers may remain concealed.
Justice Debra Stephens offered this warning: “ ... the documents requested by the Associated Press concerning allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct will be consumed by the very ‘black hole’ the PRA meant to avoid.”
In her dissenting opinion, Stephens gives a compelling, full-throated argument that the disclosure mandate should apply across the board to the legislative branch, not just individual lawmakers.
“To hold that the Legislature is not, at least, the functional equivalent of a state agency would be absurd,” wrote Stephens, recently elected by fellow justices to become chief justice in 2020.
Amen to that.