In a closely watched, hotly debated case brought by several news media outlets against the state legislature, the Washington Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that individual legislators’ offices are subject to the state Public Records Act, ch 42.56 RCW (PRA). In Associated Press et al. v. Washington State Legislature, the Court held that under the PRA, individual legislators are “agencies” for the purposes of public records disclosure requirements, but institutional legislative bodies (e.g., senate, house) are not.
The case arose in 2017, after media outlets submitted over a hundred public records requests to the state senate, house, and legislature as a whole, including specific individual legislators. In response to some requests, counsel for the house and senate stated that the public records act did not capture the requested records (under applicable definitions), or alternatively, some limited records were provided voluntarily with redactions. Several news media outlets filed a complaint against the legislative bodies and four individual legislators for violations under the public records act by withholding public records.
After the trial court ruled in favor of the Attorney General’s analysis, which concluded that individual legislators’ offices are “agencies” subject to the PRA while institutional bodies are not, the appeal proceeded to the supreme court.
The court looked to the former campaign disclosure and contribution law (CDC), which was enacted along with the PRA under the former omnibus statute, Public Disclosure Act, ch. RCW 42.56 (“PDA”). Under that original law, and still today, “agency” includes all “state agencies,” which is further defined as “every state office.” In the former (and recodified) RCW 42.17A, “state office” included legislative offices. Accordingly, the PRA clearly applies to individual legislators’ offices.
By contrast, the court concluded that legislative bodies are not included in the “agency” definition under the PRA or CDC. Rather, “the senate, house, and legislature as a whole are subject to the PRA through the Secretary [of the Senate] and the [Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives], who fulfill the institutions’ public records disclosure duties” under the PRA.
Concurring and dissenting in part, Justice Stephens (joined by Justices Yu and Johnson) found that the legislature is an “agency” subject to the PRA, since the Act is to be construed liberally and the original Public Disclosure Act was intended to apply to the whole legislature.
Similarly, concurring and dissenting in part, Justice McCloud (joined by Justice Gonzalez) found the other way, concluding that individual legislators are not an “agency” under the PRA.
This decision has clear, obvious ramifications for state legislators and the interests of a transparent government.
Armand Resto-Spotts is an attorney at Jordan Ramis PC who focuses his practice on land use, real estate, and environmental law. You can contact Armand at firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 567-3900.
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